The revenge of history

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama published the essay that made him famous, “The End of History?”  Despite the question mark, it was his contention that, with the collapse of Marxism, history had indeed ended, if only from the perspective of Hegelian philosophy.

Hegel saw history as the progress of human consciousness, embodied in grand ideologies that propelled whole peoples into action.  In the twentieth century, fascism and communism emerged as rivals to liberal democracy, and fought wars hot and cold — material and ideological — to gain supremacy over the consciousness of the world.  They failed.  By the time Fukuyama authored his essay, liberalism stood triumphant, the last and only choice of ideology for nations that sought a viable future.

In Hegelian terms, Fukuyama maintained, history was over.  Conflict and turmoil would go on, probably forever, but the underlying contradictions had been settled.  Liberalism with a consumerist face — the “Common Marketization of world politics” — had become an inevitability.  In what one can only hope was jest, Fukuyama made a show of sorrow over the passing of ideological conflict.

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.

It is almost physically jarring to turn from this sort of precious intellectualizing to the boast of the jihadist:  “You love life, while we love death.”

Fukuyama was wrong.  Seductive ideologies still confront liberalism, and the outcome remains in doubt.  In 1989, Fukuyama contemplated and quickly dismissed the possibility that religion might rise up to challenge liberalism.  “In the contemporary world,” he wrote, “only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance.”

That Muhammad might come to the mountain — or, in this case, the people of Islam to the liberal world — did not occur to him.  Hegelian wisdom could not stretch that far.

Fukuyama was wrong in large part because he relied on Hegel, whose historicism, which retroactively explains the “logic of history,” appeals to would-be prophets and arrogant intellects.  The “logic of history” is like the “science of man”:  a phrase devoid of content.  Whenever Hegel moved beyond predicting the past, he was proved wrong.  The predictions of the most famous Hegelian, Karl Marx, were famously wrong.  Fukuyama merely followed in the stumbling footsteps of his betters.

Nearly 20 years later, he has returned to the topic in a new essay, “Identity and Migration.”  The frivolous tone is gone.  Fukuyama now discovers a “hole” in the ideology of liberalism:  its inability to recognize groups as political units.  Through this hole poured the identity politics that have dominated the West for a generation.  Responding to ancient grievances, real or perceived, blacks, women, homosexuals, and many others demanded to be treated as members of an oppressed minority rather than citizens of the commonwealth.  The response has been multiculturalism:  liberal institutions embracing the glorification of “difference.”

The Fukuyama of 2007 obliquely admits his error in 1989 by describing multiculturalism as “a game at the end of history.”  It was a game because it seemed to lack consequences, either for those doing the embracing or for those embraced.  Blacks could wear dashikis, women could be called “Ms,” yet liberal democracy rolled on unchanged.  That sense of playful invulnerability, to which Fukuyama contributed mightily with his earlier essay, ended with the migration of large numbers of Muslims to the heart of liberal Europe.

From within this immigrant group, zealots and Islamists have deployed multiculturalism to promote anti-liberal ideals — for example, the imposition of Muslim religious law on their co-religionists, or indeed on the entire population.  The consequences, Fukuyama acknowledges, have been far from trivial, and could well be fatal to European democracy — historically a fragile flower despite appearances.

Far from standing unrivalled at the end of history, liberal democracy once again faces the possibility of defeat.

While less “original” than the 1989 concoction, Fukuyama’s new essay is also less Hegelian, and thus more serious.  He stands foursquare for liberal democracy, and warns against the multicultural reflex:  embracing difference may in practice be identical to sleeping with the enemy.  The possibility inspires some sturdy boundary-marking in the usually fuzzy author:

Liberalism cannot ultimately be based on group rights, because not all groups uphold liberal values. The civilization of the European Enlightenment, of which contemporary liberal democracy is the heir, cannot be culturally neutral, since liberal societies have their own values regarding the equal worth and dignity of individuals. Cultures that do not accept these premises do not deserve equal protection in a liberal democracy.

Yet Fukuyama fails to touch the heart of his subject.  Liberalism to many is the political aspect of modernity, which is just a word for the great disruption that has unraveled an increasingly larger portion of the world’s cultures since the start of the industrial revolution.  Just as modernity has been feared and loathed no less than it has been admired and desired, so liberalism’s disruptive power is feared and loathed by some, and always will be, world without end.

Liberal democracy is a moral proposition.  It can only exist within a well-defined band of behaviors.  Beyond the boundary, at one extreme, stand the dogmatists:  those who would go to any lengths to abolish the awful contingency of modern life.  The Islamists, who would command a ritual for every conceivable human act, belong in this camp.

Farthest from them, on the opposite extreme, one finds the hedonists:  those who crave all the pleasures of modernity but none of its toil or responsibility.  Many Europeans belong to this group.  They have given up on marriage, children, work, religion, and patriotism, and inhabit the secular shell of a once-sacred temple.  Liberalism is a strenuous faith — Fukuyama was wrong about that too — and Europeans in large numbers have grown weary, and wish for a rest.  They have felt that way before, and the world paid for it.

What of history?  History might be compared to a chaotic theater in which the players and the audience often trade places, a thousand contradictory scenes are rehearsed every instant — the self-same episode, a celebration for one group, is catastrophe for another — and the plot is never known before the end.  For liberalism to endure in this environment it must be advocated with confidence, courage, and clarity of purpose.

Americans retain such qualities, Fukuyama suggests.  About the Europeans, who in their confused anti-Americanism seem to prefer Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and Vladimir Putin to George W. Bush, the best we can do is hope.

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