Beyond the end of history
Interview with Pim Korsten
March 23, 2023

In a rapidly changing world characterized by accelerating technological, geopolitical and cultural shifts, speculative future-oriented research becomes increasingly challenging and valuable. Researcher Pim Korsten contributes to said body of work by analyzing philosophies of history and culture, helping the thinktank interpret the complex structure of global affairs. In this interview with team member Joep Schot and FreedomLab Fellow Victória Ferreira, Pim recounts his views on Francis Fukuyama's thesis on 'the end of history'. Can a speculative philosophy of history and metamodernism help us identify and evaluate emerging alternatives?

Joep: First and foremost, what exactly is the 'end of history' thesis? 

Pim: American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote an article on the 'end of history' in the summer of 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama expanded this article to a book called The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, arguing that liberal democracy and free market capitalism are the "ideological endpoints" for man, i.e. the final or 'best' ideas on how to organize economics, society and politics.

"Fukuyama's work is basically an empirical update of Hegel's and Kojève's philosophies of history, based on the global affairs of the 1990s. It argues that liberal democracy and free market capitalism are the 'end of history' as they maximize freedom and are rationally ordered forms of governance of our objective spirit."

The idea of the end of history has as its philosophical precursors the works of Alexandre Kojève and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel saw history as a process of the realization of the idea of freedom, meaning that forms of human government and interaction become increasingly rational and self-determined as history progresses. To Hegel, this meant that human beings would increasingly come to know themselves and the world through history. Instead of being thrown into an alien world and being at the mercy of extrinsic forces, man gains agency and knowledge and thus becomes more at 'home' and self-aware of one's actions. 

One example is the idea of God and self-determination: at first, man encounters an alien world and ascribes agency and divinity to natural forces, then idealizes these animalistic, natural forces into the concept of a transcendent being that determines the course and ways of the world, to which man is willfully subjected. In the end, man would finally come to realize that the idea of God is just a projection, a human image of a transcendent realm of reality, thus coming to realize that man is no other than the spirit of God, free to rationally determine oneself and orient freely in the world. For Hegel, culture and politics reflect this divine state, in which man lives rationally autonomous and as such realizes the idea of freedom. In some ways, all human activity for Hegel shows that man increasingly becomes a 'spirit': a rational being that self-consciously determines its own actions and thus comes to know itself in the world, without it being determined by external or alien forces and ideas. 

On a collective level, this historically developing 'spirit' of freedom would eventually lead to full knowledge of human nature (i.e. subjective spirit), as well as a social, economic, and political world (i.e. objective spirit and his 'philosophy of right'), that realizes freedom in a rational, self-aware ordering of human affairs. For example, the idea of rational self-determination prevents citizens from being ruled by divine despots or the unequal, slave-like relations of peasants to feudal lords that are not based on rational, self-justifying principles. 

In the 1940s, Kojève already gave a philosophical interpretation of Hegel's philosophy of right and history, stating that the idea of freedom would lead to a universal state based on rational and universal principles only. This ideal state should be maximally inclusive and provide as much as freedom as possible for all (Kojève was actually a communist during Stalin's reign of terror, holding fast to his idealistic principles). Fukuyama's work is basically an empirical update of Hegel's and Kojève's philosophy of history, based on the global affairs of the 1990s. It argues that liberal democracy and free market capitalism are the 'end of history' as they maximize freedom and are rationally ordered forms of governance of our objective spirit.

Victória: Why is the End of History thesis so widely criticized?  

Pim: In some ways, Fukuyama's book is a reflection of the euphoria of the early 1990s in response to the victory of liberal and democratic capitalism over communism: the 'free West' over the 'dictatorial Soviet Union'. This was presumably illustrated by various events: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War with the dissolution of the USSR into democratic Eastern European societies, and the expansion of the 'post-historical' European Union over the continent. Additionally, at the same time, China and India were opening up their economies and integrating themselves into the global economy, introducing free market principles to their closed economies. During this period, the US—arguably the main defender of the values Fukuyama propagated—was the undisputed global hegemon thus giving a very 'real', material basis for the success of liberal democracy and free market capitalism into various structures such as international institutions and laws, trade agreements and the neoliberal consensus in economics.

Today, however, Fukuyama's 'end of history' thesis has become a target of mockery: it is often being accused of naivité, since there are obviously still many issues with society, economics, and politics that remain unsolved, thus challenging the idea that liberal democracy and free market capitalism are the best or actual endpoints of history. Think about internal challenges to Western democracies such as illiberal democrats or populism, rising and persistent socio-economic inequality, the inability to tackle climate change and ecological degradation, and the rise of identity politics and culture wars; these events really put into question the soundness of the liberal system. Furthermore, the success of China, a country which adheres to other values and traditions, can be seen as a token of the success of alternative politico-economic models to generate welfare.

Joep: What are the main alternatives to the End of History thesis?

Pim: One alternative argues that the importance Fukuyama places on freedom and rationality was merely a reflection of Western euphoria in the 1990s and an articulation of the American or Western belief that rationality and freedom are the ultimate values and measures of the good life. However, with the changing geopolitical balance and the rise of the East, resulting in the end of American hegemony since the 1990s or even of Western dominance since the 17th century, it could be that other cultures bring their own values to the table and want to realize these in their own economic, social and political structures and institutions. For example, in Chinese philosophy, harmony is generally mentioned as the ultimate value instead of freedom, potentially resulting in different political, social and economic principles of organization. We can also think of other ultimate values that cultures could propagate such as spiritual liberation, sustainability and love, which might not be compatible with capitalism or democracy. 

History can be framed as the most important science we have: it is where social, economic and political ideals, values and concepts realize themselves, becoming actual and material.

A second alternative feeds off of persistent and rising inequality, as we see the growing popularity of socialism and even Marxism in many Western countries. Here, the 'end of history' is not capitalism and democracy, but a communist state that orders society, politics and the economy in service of the public good, administered by an enlightened party committee—kind of like Plato's 'philosopher king'.

A third alternative comes from the urgent task to address climate change and ecological destruction: capitalism and democracy seem unable or slow to stop human beings from destroying nature and the planet, thus undermining its own natural or ecological foundation of politics, society and economics. Ecological modernists offer alternative political, social and economic systems in defense of nature, ecology, and biodiversity, such as circular, zero-growth economies. 

The domain of technology provides another alternative to our social, economic and political systems: democracy and capitalism seem to maximize rationality and freedom from the individual human point of view, for example through the process of voting or free consumption spending. But what does the rise of exponential technologies mean for these ideals and principles? What would it mean for our political institutions if algorithms come to know us better than we know ourselves, when robots handle all the economic production and 'man' becomes obsolete as an economic production factor, or what does a 'free society' look like when decentralized neurotechnologies are combined with brain-computer interfaces to generate a collective, global hive mind? 

Lastly, there still is the possibility that Fukuyama is right after all; for all the criticisms and problems put forward by these alternatives, it still holds that they could potentially be solved within the liberal system of free market capitalism and democracy. To realize a meaningful control over technology, we still need the decentralized governance model that democracy provides, to solve climate change we need free market incentives to spur innovation. Price polluting activities and consumption patterns, much like most problems (e.g. reducing inequality, populism) must be overcome by fixing the institutions of our current liberal system, not by proposing a new one. 

Victória: So what do we mean by the term 'history' in the context of the End of History thesis? 

Pim: In a very abstract way, you could say that history is the material substance in which ideas are realized. For Hegel, it was the process of humankind getting to know itself in and through a long historical process in which the idea of freedom realizes itself in social, political and economic structures and principles, which philosophy comes to understand by reflecting upon these historical processes. Therefore, history is the bedrock in which these ideas are concretely formed and succeed one another. For example, history is how the conception of freedom changed from medieval times to modernity; how freedom has a different character and qualities in a feudal society compared to a democracy. This means that history and philosophy are particularly interconnected, intrinsically belonging to each other. Ideas (philosophy) need concrete forms to become real (history), but philosophy's ideas about abstract or ideal ideas require a historical actualization of these ideas to understand them in a objective way. Hegel famously said that philosophy can only fully understand 'actual' ideas, i.e. our zeitgeist, that consists of realized forms and structures that express or manifest underlying ideas. Importantly, this also makes history the logical moment in the development of thought that guides thinking towards supra-empirical or natural (i.e. metaphysical) facts. Only from a retrospective reflection on the historical development and actualization of ideas can we understand these ideas fully, both in terms of their actuality and ideality. It is only then that these ideas are both abstract and concrete, real and rational, or universal and absolute. 

Therefore, history can be framed as the most important science we have: it is where social, economic and political ideals, values and concepts realize themselves, becoming actual and material. And it is only in and through phenomenal (empirical) history, or in the conception of the idea that emerges from the historical development, that we can transcend the natural, empirical world towards noumenal (metaphysical) ideas. For Hegel, only by a reflection on the historical flux can we discern the permanent ideas of freedom and rationality. Therefore, a speculative philosophy of the future must give a vision and direction of the end of history—an end goal both in terms of finality and in terms of most ‘ideal’ idea—that is founded on profound philosophical analyses of history, just like Hegel, Kojève and Fukuyama did. That's why I admire these philosophers: they provide a real philosophy of society, politics and economics. 

Joep: What is the role of metamodernism in this ongoing debate on the future of history?

Pim: Personally, I don't believe that there is a future in which one alternative 'wins' over the others. Similarly, 'ideal' types of society, like pure capitalism or communism, have never existed and I don't think they ever will. Therefore, the future will be a combination and co-existence of multiple alternatives. An interplay of all these 'ideal' alternatives will eventually—whether in real, finite time or not—become integrated and adjusted. 

Metamodernism is an emerging philosophical paradigm that provides us with the tools to develop such a speculative philosophy of the future: by oscillating between a modernist perception of history's end (as in Hegel and Fukuyama) and a postmodern deconstruction of universal values and final goals, metamodernism tries to speculate about the future. In terms of a philosophy of history and the future, metamodernism argues for the possibility of approximating these ultimate values or final endpoints while acknowledging that we, as finite human beings, cannot ever reach or finally grasp them. 

"In terms of a philosophy of history and the future, metamodernism argues for the possibility of approximating these ultimate values or final endpoints while acknowledging that we, as finite human beings, cannot ever reach or finally grasp them."

However, instead of abstaining from judgment or taking a critical, cynical or relativist 'anything goes' position like in postmodernism, metamodernism takes ideals and ideas as something to aim for, even if we know we can never realize or understand them. In terms of a history of philosophy and the future, this means that we need utopian ideals, even though we know they will never be universal. Nevertheless, there is value in taking on as many perspectives as possible and striving for final ideals on the end of history, as they all help in mapping the coordinates of the complex hyperobject of the future that is emerging, and thus provide a sound foundation on how to create a better one. 

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