Turbulent Times Or Sound And Fury At The End Of History? Fukuyama Twenty Years On

The Citizen: Issue 1
November/December 2008

Author: Joe Cleary

2009 will see the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of Soviet and European Communism. These were the most momentous world historical events of our time and inaugurated the real break between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. The two decades since that moment of epochal rupture have been extremely turbulent and provoke complex questions about the nature of our post-Cold War era – questions to which the leading political and intellectual classes in the West seem generally not to have answers. To some, discussions about the long-term direction of world history will seem of dubious value since the human capacity to read the present, let alone to predict the future, has always been limited. Nevertheless, without some sense of where we are now in history and of where we might be headed, there can be no long-term planning or orientation, and, thus, everyone from the economist to the engineer, from the military-man to the meteorologist, from the political activist to the artist, is always invested, whether consciously or not, in some or other prognosis about the future.

One of the most powerful visions of history to come to the fore in the late 1980s, almost directly coincident with the fall of the Wall, was the notion that humankind had arrived at ‘the end of history.’ The text that most eloquently articulated this sense of things was Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?,’ initially published as a short article in the summer of 1989, just on the eve of the earthquakes in the East, and later expanded, without the cautionary question mark of the original essay, into his 1992 volume The End of History and the Last Man. For Fukuyama, twentieth-century history was essentially a titanic struggle between competing models of society that had eventually culminated in the triumph of a liberal democratic version of capitalism and in the intellectual exhaustion of all of its serious competitors. Thus, the upheavals of World War I had demolished the remnants of the absolutist state and the ancien régime, bringing the rule of the old aristocracies and hereditary dynasties in Europe and beyond to a definitive end. However, after World War I, liberal capitalism had suffered a major collapse and nearly buckled under in competition with two rival social models with equally universalist pretensions, namely Fascism and Communism. But, with the decisive overthrow of Fascism in World War II, and with the slow attrition and eventual implosion of Soviet Communism in the Cold War, liberal capitalism, Fukuyama asserted, had not only rallied but had also finally seen off its only serious post-Enlightenment competitors, neither of which had been able to deliver a world as militarily sustainable, as materially affluent, or as socially attractive as that provided by western-style liberal democracies. The ignominious collapse of Soviet Communism in the Eastern Bloc, the subsequent self-liquidation of European parliamentary communism, and the migration of the socialist democratic and labour parties to the liberal centre of the political spectrum were all testimony that socialism in all its forms had proved intellectually bankrupt; all had failed the test of history. As a result, liberal capitalism at the end of the twentieth century found itself in a position of unchallenged ideological hegemony, a situation without precedent in nearly two centuries.

How well have Fukuyama’s theses weathered in the two decades since they first appeared? On the face of it, the answer would seem to be rather badly. Certainly, his initially upbeat sense that the collapse of Soviet Communism would pave the way for a speedy spread of liberal versions of capitalist democracy across the globe now seems considerably off the mark, part of a heady moment of American triumphalism much deflated if not entirely punctured since then. The attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, the rise of China and the threatened resurrection of Russia as new global superpowers, each representing modes of capitalism that are far from liberal-democratic, and the many aggravated forms of environmental degradation responsible for ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ have all emerged in the decades since 1989 as powerful checks on the idea that the twenty-first century would be defined by an extended pax Americana and the universalisation of the American way of life. Moreover, each of these three threats raises the possibility that liberal capitalism suffered from internal weaknesses that were not just contingent or minor liabilities, but that were, rather, intrinsic system-threatening antagonisms that might render it as a social model no more historically sustainable in the longer term than its earlier rivals had been.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism across the Middle East and Asia and the increased assertiveness of Christian fundamentalism in the United States and of Judaic fundamentalism in Israel are undoubtedly among the more striking features of the post-Cold War international scene. Were this rise of religiously-defined mass movements to continue to gather momentum into the future, the current movements might be seen not just as temporary regional oddities or passing aberrations, but as symptoms of some deeper and growing malaise, an indication that there were certain kinds of ‘spiritual’ needs that even the more affluent liberal capitalist democracies could not meet. Viewed as such, the ‘return of the sacred’ and the apparently growing power of religiously-defined mass movements – a post-Cold War political force to be reckoned with now, not just in the badlands of Kansas, Kabul, or Karachi, but also in the metropoles of London, Amsterdam, Paris, or New York – might be read as a sign that significant masses of people everywhere still yearned for something beyond material affluence and voting rights, for some kind of authority more charismatic than that of the bureaucratic state, or for some sense of human mission or higher purpose in life than liberal democracy could furnish. Should this be the explanation for the rise of religiously-defined politics in the late twentieth century, then liberal capitalism’s inability to satisfy such yearnings would amount to an inherent flaw that might eventually lead, if not to its downfall, then at least to conflict with competing social alternatives. And, even if we see the increasing weight of religiously-defined mass movements not as a ‘spiritual’ phenomenon, but as a symptom of material distress rooted in the deprivation of those left behind in both the badlands of the developing world and the rustbelts of the post-industrial regions, then this, too, would indicate a level of social disequilibrium within the current world order of serious system-disturbing proportions.

On a second and more serious front, liberal capitalism as a social model also looks vulnerable. The rise of China as a world superpower and Russia’s attempt to recover its former superpower status under a new Putinesque mode of authoritarian rule lend weight to the idea that the twenty-first century might be defined not by the conjunction of capitalism and liberalism, but, rather, by a more sinister merger of capitalism and authoritarianism. China, Russia, and Islam, of course, have all long served as exemplary figures of backwardness, despotism, or totalitarianism in the Western orientalist imagination, and conflations of these hoary old bogeys in the last decade or so have actually served to license an escalation of authoritarianism within the West itself. Thus, the ‘War on Terror,’ declared by Anglo-American champions of the West after 9/11, was initially supposed to be directed against Islamic outlaw Osama bin Laden and his medievalist Taliban protectors in the wilds of Afghanistan. But, that campaign was soon re-directed into a ‘crusade’ against Saddam Hussein, whose lavish palaces and big moustaches conveniently allowed him to be hyped up as mad-oriental-style-despot-cum-Stalinist-dictator (without a Red Army or nuclear bomb). The invasion of Iraq was clearly a gambit in a much larger US global strategy to check Russia in the east by expanding NATO right up to its borders and to check China’s economic growth by establishing control over the oil-wells of the Middle East. That gambit may have failed in some ways, but the ‘War on Terror’ has nonetheless been used to sanction a real rollback of liberal freedoms everywhere in Europe and the United States, to expand the security state, and to brazenly legitimate the unapologetic use of torture and so-called ‘military humanism’ in ways unimaginable even a few decades ago. By this logic, to secure itself from intolerant authoritarianisms, the West has no option but to curb its own liberalism and to resign itself to more state authoritarianism. Were this open-ended ‘War on Terror’ to continue for decades, and it may well continue as long as the US feels it is engaged in a winnable struggle to retain its status as sole global superpower, then this would suggest, pace Fukuyama, that authoritarian rather than liberal capitalism is the future towards which twenty-first century history is really tending, both in the developed and in the developing worlds. It is widely accepted that the Western capitalist bloc was prepared after World War II to maintain a certain degree of social democracy and to support certain modes of social provision for the poorer classes – in the form of welfare and public services – when it still needed to bolster its own image in the Cold War and to prevent the working classes from going over to communism. But, ever since the Soviet social model ceased to be a threat, the capitalist West has consistently downsized its more ‘socialist-type’ commitments and revoked such concessions. Hence the neo-liberal and neoconservative onslaughts on the welfare state, unions, and public provision that have been advanced almost everywhere, even in the most advanced economies of the world, since the late 1970s. But, if social democracy could be rolled back once it was no longer needed to demonstrate the West’s superiority to the Soviet Union, isn’t liberalism, too, equally vulnerable to such downsizing? Doesn’t the new post-1989 global landscape afford the Western elites a real opportunity to wage a war of attrition on liberalism in the decades ahead, just as they already have done on the welfare state and public service commitments in the past quarter century? An extended western recession running concurrent with the ‘War on Terror’ might well provide the perfect cover for such a process, the need for ‘security’ against Islamic fundamentalism and for ‘greater competitiveness’ against China or Russia serving as the arguments to legitimate such retrenchment. The fulminations of self-perceived champions of liberal capitalism such as Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, and company about the dangers posed to Western liberalism by Islamic and other fundamentalisms always ignore the ways in which the Western states have consistently demonised other illiberal regimes as a means to augment their own authoritarian powers.

In the long run, though, ‘global warming’ may well be the issue that most seriously troubles Fukuyama’s notion that liberal capitalism represents the most sustainable model of society and the definitive endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution. The threats represented by militant Islam, China, or Russia can all be cast in terms borrowed from historically earlier jargons of medieval fanaticism, oriental despotism, totalitarianism, and what not. In contrast, the threat represented by ‘climate change’ is something entirely new and begs the question as to whether industrial capitalism, in either its liberal or authoritarian modes, is not ultimately too destructive of our planet to be sustainable. For much of the last century, it was commonly accepted that Western affluence could gradually be extended across the entire globe if only poorer societies could discover the right policy mix – this has long been the basic common sense of all Euro-American ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’ programmes. The conservative right and the humanitarian liberal-left might have disagreed on how best to achieve this objective, but they each shared the idea that the ‘western way of life,’ meaning a combination of capitalism and liberalism, should and could be spread more or less evenly across the globe. But, what all such ‘development’ or modernisation’ programmes basically presuppose is that if poorer societies are to prosper under the contemporary world system, then they must produce ever greater quantities of goods to trade. And, if they are to keep this expanding level of production and trading going, it follows that they must then also consume those goods in ever greater amounts, something which in turn requires vast media and advertising apparatuses through which individuals are continually exhorted to discover new needs. However, the difficulty with all this is that as modern industrial capitalism has actually spread across the various continents, whether in its liberal democratic or autocratic state versions, the ever-expanding levels of production and consumption required seem increasingly to be just too environmentally destructive to be viable, at least in the long run and maybe even in the shorter term. Simply put, if all of the world today were to possess the same number of cars and refrigerators and to use the same amounts of food, water, oil, and electricity as do the peoples of the US and the EU, then the planet would soon become uninhabitable.

This poses some questions of a fundamental order indeed to the champions of liberal capitalism. Since the earth’s resources are not infinite, and since a mere two centuries of industrial capitalism spread over only parts of the planet seem already to be wreaking great havoc on our environmental systems, are Western liberal capitalists prepared to condone and justify the current gaps between the wealthy and the poor regions of the world as the necessary price of maintaining the ‘western way of life’ in at least the better-off regions? And, if a world divided into rich consumer regions (such as Western Europe and the US) and super-exploited, immiserated poorer regions (such as Africa and much of Asia) is not an acceptable future but something to be overcome, then, how is global wealth to be distributed more evenly if it cannot be distributed on the liberal industrial-capitalist model that has to date proved so ecologically destructive, even at current rates of planetary inequality? To put it succinctly, contra Fukuyama, it is difficult to see how western-style liberal capitalist society in its current mode can at once become fully global and, yet, also be ecologically sustainable. But, the dilemma here is not just that industrial capitalism as an economic system is too environmentally rapacious; it is also that any really serious common tackling of ‘global warming’ would ultimately seem to require modes of world political governance that would have to give priority to the global collective good rather than to the individual rights (to consume, to travel, to own as much as one can manage) sacred to liberalism. In other words, whereas a worst case scenario might see liberal capitalism steadily rolled back in favour of more fundamentalist or authoritarian state versions of capitalism, or some mix of the two, a best case scenario-one which would see some really serious concerted attempt to tackle ‘climate change’ – would seem to demand a more communitarian type of world government than the liberal and neo-liberal laissez faire versions to which the West is currently committed.

One way or another, then, liberal capitalism’s claim to represent the end of history – the best of all possible frameworks within which such human ills as were solvable could be solved – seems already a good deal more vulnerable than Fukuyama had predicted twenty years ago. This is so because liberal capitalism as a social model seems vulnerable from the right, since, in a world where capitalism is taken to be the only game in town, there is no guarantee that the capitalist ruling classes will need to keep on honouring liberalism into the future. Like the American New Deal or European Social Democracy, it may well prove to be a value-system honoured only so long as it is serviceable and be sloughed off, not all at once via crude dictatorships or one-party rule, but in a long war of attrition, when no longer needed. In short, the current rise of Islamic, Christian, and Judaic fundamentalism, of authoritarian state-capitalisms in China and Russia, and of new levels of authorit–arianism in the US and Western Europe, sanctioned under the banner of the ‘War on Terror’, collectively amount to a deeply malign conjuncture, an unholy collision of reactionary forces inimical not just to socialism but to liberalism as well. This isn’t a paranoid view of things. Today, several of the world’s most populous regions – China, Russia, North Africa – are governed by states where elections are no more than makeshift plebiscites to rubber-stamp ruling oligarchies. And in the US, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic issues are normally nugatory, and both parties are so patently dependent on corporate cash and corporate media endorsement that there, too, elections are largely ritual endorsements of a regnant duopoly. Closer to home, the ways in which the European governing elites have recently brushed aside all impediments to the construction of an EU super-state – as evidenced by the cavalier dismissal of popular plebiscites in France, Holland, and now Ireland – suggests a similar trend toward the demotion of democracy in Western Europe. But, if the thinning of democracy poses one kind of threat to liberal capitalism as a social model, the spectre of ‘global warming’ suggests that industrial capitalism is also beginning to fail the test of the merciless laboratory of history in an entirely different way. What this means is that unless some superior global mode of producing and distributing wealth and of governing society can be discovered, then the ‘end of history’ will indeed be, in Fukuyama’s words, ‘a very sad time’-humanity succumbing, however, not to the satiated suburban listlessness and ennui of ‘the last man’, as Fukuyama had worried, but, instead, gradually choking itself in its own industrial-capitalist toxicity.

The dilemma for progressives, though, is that even if liberal capitalism can be shown to be subject to all sorts of systemic contradictions and, thus, to be far from the optimal means for solving human needs Fukuyama imagined it to be in the late 1980s, this does not mean that any better social model has appeared on the horizon or begun to take shape. After all, Fukuyama had never claimed that liberal capitalism was or would ever be perfect, only that humanity had never managed to devise anything better that had proved to be able to withstand the test of time. In this sense, nothing has really occurred in the two decades since Fukuyama penned his ‘The End of History?’ essay to disprove his thesis that liberal capitalism represents the high-water mark of mankind’s ideological evolution and the most workable model of society available. This is because Fukuyama’s thesis cannot be refuted only on paper; until some kind of society that answers human needs better than liberal capitalism can be shown to be not only imaginable in theory but also historically creatable and sustainable, Fukuyama will always retain the last word. And, since no alternative social model of that order has really gained ground since 1989, liberal capitalism obviously remains the globally ascendant social model, the proof of which is that nearly everywhere it remains the basic grammar of politics and the value-system to which even authoritarian state capitalisms, such as China or Russia, pay at least lip service. Obviously, there are all sorts of subaltern resistances to this status quo. And the challenges to the current order from leftists, environmentalists, new social movements, anti-globalisation organisations, the more oppressed classes, and so on may even be increasing as crises mount and rival superpowers clash for dominance. Nevertheless, despite such opposition, the conviction that liberal capitalism represents the best kind of society and that there are no workable alternatives remains deeply entrenched in the broad popular consciousness across much of the world, and there is little sense right now that this will change anytime soon.

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2008