Back in 1992, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously wrote that “at the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy”. Almost three decades later, the belief that liberal democracy combined with free market capitalism is the ideological endpoint of human history, is seriously doubted. As such, the debate on the End of History has flared up again, with possible new alternatives.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote his The End of History and the Last Man, which voiced a hope that a new era of human history had arrived, one in which the whole world would convert to liberal democracy and adopt free-market policies. This thesis seemed to be empirically verified by the collapse of its major ideological competitor, the Soviet Union, the subsequent democratization of former Soviet states, as well as the economic opening up of other parts of the world (mainly China in 1978 and India in 1991) and absence of war on the European continent made possible by the “post-historical” European Union. However, we have written before that the presumed-to-be-dead ideological competition between democracy and authoritarianism has been revived. Those making an argument for authoritarian leadership can call on the success of the Communist Party of China, which achieved its “economic miracle” while keeping a tight grip on nationalist politics, or on the reappearance of authoritarian leaders chosen by democratic principles (so called illiberal democracies), incompetent leaders chosen by popular vote, the failure of the Arab Spring or the “democratic” Brexit process. Furthermore, with increased critique of free-market capitalism (and the growing belief in a “Chinese model of capitalism”), Fukuyama’s thesis seems to be doubted again. But a closer look at Fukuyama’s thesis reveals that it is not obsolete yet.
In The End of History, Fukuyama follows Plato’s division of the soul into three basic categories that motivate human behavior and action: ratio, desire and what he calls “thymos” or the longing for recognition. Modern natural sciences maximally fulfill our demand for rationality, the imperatives of which create the most welfare under free markets conditions by means of modern industrialization and bureaucratization. This, in turn, results in free people who can deliberately trade and interact with other free people. The “universal and homogenous state” (i.e. liberal democracy) is the organizational form that treats all of these free people as equals, instead of basing a hierarchy on “irrational” hence unfree foundations such as nationality or religion, thus fulfilling the human longing for recognition. The conclusion is that the combination of liberal democracy and free markets creates a “post-historical” state that frees us from traditional constraints and from historical cases of coercing others into recognizing us (e.g. by means of war, illusion or imperialism).
Following this line of thought, there is still no final verdict on Fukuyama’s claim, and Fukuyama is able to counter his critics. For example, in his dual-volume The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama explains the regression of several states from democratization into authorization because these states failed in their modernization process, thus failing to provide their populations with basic necessities, angering them and causing them to flock to authoritarian leaders that promise change. And in his latest book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Fukuyama states that nationalism and populism are to be explained from the lack of freedom and recognition of those who are materially left behind in globalization, and as psychological – but irrational – coping mechanisms for the acceleration of change in our world. As such, we can still believe free-market capitalism and consumerism (desire), the natural sciences and modernization (reason), and the universal and homogenous state (thymos, recognition) are the endpoints to the universal path of history.
Nonetheless, alternatives are emerging that comprise immanent criticism of Fukuyama’s conceptual framework. First, realists could claim that the struggle for recognition will increasingly happen between states, mooting the establishment of “post-historical” universal and homogenous states. They claim that the recent decades of liberal democratization were the result of a unique set of socio-economic conditions, in which the traditional great power competition was lacking, as was any serious challenger to the economically and militarily superior U.S. But with a resurgent Russia and the global economic power shift towards Asia (and demographic balance shifting towards Africa), as well as a more multipolar military world order (e.g. Japan, India, Saudi Arabia), we are bound to enter a new period of geopolitical conflict in which liberal states might lose and become subjected by more aggressive and powerful “historical” states.
Nonetheless, this still leaves room for the possibility that one day, all states will transform into liberal, free-market democracies. More fundamentally, one could claim that free-market capitalism isn’t the most efficient way of creating and distributing welfare. Criticism of free-market capitalism already increased significantly after the 2008 financial crisis, even within the IMF, one of the beacons of the neoliberal Washington Consensus. In previous research, we already described that recent decades have led to increasing inequality, the rise of corporate power, and neglect of the financial cycles, in turn resulting in the academic and public discredit of neoliberalism. In the face of mass disruption caused by automation and AI, new economic narratives are needed to fulfill our human desire for the equal distribution and growth of welfare. Second, it might seem that the modern state and industrialization are not so rational after all. Given the dual contradictions within modernity of structural inequality (resulting from the immanent laws of capitalism and corrupt “superstructure” politics) and ecological degradation (as a result of our wasteful forms of production and consumption), the current models of modernity might not be fit to tackle these persistent problems. As deep transitions within the socio-technical systems of societies and economies are required, a more “enlightened state” that transcends the individual wills of citizens, consumers and stakeholders might be necessary. Lastly, new sources of recognition could emerge. Whereas Fukuyama conceived of recognition as the mutual respect of free and equal people, whose dignity and freedom is based on material possessions and rational interaction, new forms of recognition could emerge that transcend this anthropology. For example, we might come to place less emphasis on material possessions, or develop ideas of post-human ethics and religions.