Twenty-nine years ago, Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘end of history’. His initial article entitled ‘The End of History?’ was published in 1989 in The National Interest, a small foreign-policy journal.
Later, Fukuyama dropped the question mark and extended the material into book-length in 1992 with the title The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history was picked up, read, and hotly debated by enthusiasts as well as critics. As a result, Fukuyama became a celebrated figure in the political sciences and the end of history, a catchphrase in democracy studies.
Perhaps the time of the article’s publication has something to do with how the ‘end of history’ thesis became popular. The 1989 article came out just before (1) the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, (2) the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and (3) the collapse of Soviet Union two years later in 1991. Although the end of history idea was mostly dismissed at first, the political climate and event of post-Cold War cemented its popularity and validity forever, or it had seemed so. Fukuyama was hailed (by many) as some kind of intellectual influence and prophetic seer. Writing in the article in 1989, Fukuyama had already said that: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Such an optimistic, prophetic statement!
In fact, the 1990s brought so much hope, pride and optimism not only for Francis Fukuyama but also for the United States and (Western) Europe. The Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989, and the leaders of the Soviet Union (USSR – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) announced its dissolution in December 1991. Then-president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, didn’t fail to take this opportunity to declare US’ ‘victory’ in the Cold War. Moreover, this is also widely celebrated as the triumph of Western capitalist liberal democracy over Soviet communism.
The idea of the end of history is based on the belief of history as directional and progressive. Fukuyama admitted that the idea of historical progress and the end of history was not original. He traced his predecessors most prominently to Karl Marx and George W. F. Hegel, the latter through the reading of Alexandre Kojeve. Fukuyama mentioned that for Hegel the end of history was a liberal state, whereas for Marx it was a communist society. Fukuyama had this one strand of similarity with Marx in his espousement of the ‘end narrative’, but he identified himself more strongly with the Hegelian-Kojeveian position.
Fukuyama believed that Western liberal democracy is the “endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government.” He argued that liberal democracy has outlasted all competing ideologies including aristocracy, hereditary monarchy, military dictatorships, fascism, and (recently at that time) communism, and that it is the most rational political system that is ever invented and existed. The political scientist also boldly asserted in The End of History and the Last Man that “While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on.” Thus the triumph of liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, the end of history.
Fukuyama said that his idea of ‘history’ has been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted by many readers and commentators. He said that what he referred to as history is not the “occurrences of events”; but rather History – that is, “history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process”, which take accounts the experience of all peoples in all times. Moreover, what he said by the ‘end of history’ doesn’t mean that mankind has reached the ‘end of the world’ scenario. “This did not mean that the natural cycle of birth, life, and death would end, that important events would no longer happen, or that newspapers reporting them would cease to be published. It meant, rather, that there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.” Fukuyama was saying that liberal democracy has triumphed and it is the ultimate stage of political-ideological development.
Contrary to some claims, however, Fukuyama didn’t say that there would be perpetual peace at the end of history. Instead, he predicted that there would still be events – such as ethnic conflicts, national violence, and religious divisions – at the end of history. But, he said, large-scale conflicts which involve large states that are still caught up in the grip of history are disappearing from the world scene. He also predicted that the problems of the post-historical period under the liberal order will be conflicts within liberal democracy itself rather than outside forces or intrusions.
The end of history will be a “very sad time”, Fukuyama believed, because (most) countries will achieve political stability and economic prosperity under the liberal ideals and values and that there will be nothing to do except the “perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” Fukuyama imagined that people in the post-history period will feel nostalgia for the time when history existed. “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history”, he wrote, “will serve to get history started once again.”
Fukuyama can be seen as an optimist, as his outlook and treatment of history’s unfolding is so neat and so bloodless – although not a purely optimist since he anticipated the possible future conflicts even in the post-historical society. He can also be seen as an Anglo-Eurocentric thinker in his analysis and advocacy of the Western-style liberal democracy as the zenith point of political establishments and human government – totally dismissing every other potential cultural and political-ideological competitors.
Now twenty-nine years later, Fukuyama has postponed the end of history. He said that what is called ‘identity politics’ – the struggles and demands for particular identity and recognition – disturbs and threatens modern liberal democracy. Fukuyama developed the “end of history” argument in 1989-1992 during what Samuel P. Huntington called the “third wave” of democratization, and things have changed quite a lot since, as we have seen “democratic recession” (Larry Diamond’s term) or “decline in global freedom” in the past decades.
Fukuyama dismissed the claims by many political and economic analysts that economic recession and inequality are the driving forces of conflicts and socio-political upheavals in our modern world today. While he maintained that nationalism and religion will function as powerful forces in the modern world, he argued that the struggle for recognition, what he called thymos – borrowing a word from Socrates’ discussions in Book IV of Plato’s Republic – has been the “primary driver of the entire human historical process.” Fukuyama distinguished thymos into two manifestations – isothymia and megalothymia. As he put it, isothymia is the desire to be recognized as equal of others, and it has been the emotion underlying modern identity politics. Megalothymia, on the other hand, is the demand of certain individuals to be recognized as superior to others. Thus, believed Fukuyama, modern world politics and history can be explained in terms of thymotic demands for recognition.
Fukuyama argued that modern liberal democracy has been threatened because it hasn’t fully solve the grievances and resentment of identities. Modern liberal democracy promised universal recognition and the dignity of its citizens, he wrote, but it frequently failed to act up on those promises. Dissatisfactions with the failed promises of liberal democracy thus result in anxiety, anger and disappointment. Moreover, people want more than just an abstract idea of universal recognition; what they want instead, he said, was recognition for their particular identities and the groups to which they belong – the more so if they belong to marginalized and minority groups. Following Fukuyama’s thymotic expressions, therefore, we can generally say that the isothymia finds its manifestations in today’s political and social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo Movements, and LGBT Rights movements, and megalothymia in the upsurges of populist nationalism and religious fundamentalism as well as in Brexit voters, the growing anti-immigration counteractivists and in the like of ambitious demagogues like Donald Trump.
Despite the postponement of the end of history, however, Fukuyama said that he still believes that history is directional and progressive, and that liberal democracy is the fullest embodiment of the modernization process. But, he said, getting there (that is, the end of history) is harder than it seemed back in 1989-1992, and the possibility of institutional decay is ever-present.
History has not ended. It is still changing and evolving, and we have seen in recent years the disturbing rapid rise of illiberal democracies and the return of popular autocratic regimes in countries like Russia, China, Turkey, and the Philippines. Populist movements and right-wing politics have also won currency almost everywhere in the world. Perhaps the people find that the liberal political establishments are weak and soft, and want to have leaders with ‘strong’ political leadership and governments that will lead to economic growth. Perhaps the people are disillusioned with the liberal order and tired of its multifaceted capitalistic nature and globalist politics. Of course, there may be more than one driving factor.
As history continues to unfold, it appears that either Fukuyama’s end of history thesis or thymotic argument might not be sufficient to understand or explain these rising illiberal phenomena and autocratic tendencies in the international scene, but the roles and effects of identity politics cannot be denied or underestimated nonetheless.
- Francis Fukuyama. (Summer 1989). The End of History? The National Interest. Retrieved PDF from https://www.embl.de/aboutus/science_society/discussion/…2006/ref1-22june06.pdf
- Francis Fukuyama. (1922). The End of History and the Last Man. New York, NY: The Free Press.
- Francis Fukuyama. (August 23, 2018). Identity and the End of History. The American Interest. Retrieved from https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/08/23/identity-and-the-end-of-history
Fukuyama wrote a whole book on identity in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).