The End of History or a Familiar Refrain?

The River of Time

From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived.[1] One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”[2]; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.[3] This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.

The events of the 1980s and early 1990s showed the reality of dramatic transformation in human affairs, but they also led to a return to the idea that history could itself be at an end, as there were no more philosophical struggles that could be distinguished on the horizon. After the first three quarters of the twentieth century “saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism,”[4] the last quarter saw those forces seemingly defeated and laying prostrate beneath the crushing, mass-produced boot of liberal democratic capitalism. This peace and, more importantly, the lack of ideological opposition to liberalism that it reflected, seemed to mean that we were at “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.”[5] This inherently optimistic sentence, from the perspective of a liberal, was written by the political scientist and historian Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay “The End of History?”; the theory he expressed in that article and his subsequent book has been hotly discussed and debated both at the time and ever since.

Looking back at Fukuyama’s argument from our self-isolating perch thirty-one years later, it is clear that his optimism was misplaced; we are not at the ‘end of history’, indeed, history itself may be coming back with a vengeance. Fukuyama’s triumph of liberal democratic capitalism has been undercut by events, which have not only proved him wrong in many of his assertions, but have accelerated the pace of historical change and ideological conflict. This essay will accept Fukuyama’s premise – that he believes in an ‘end of history’ with the victory of liberal democratic capitalism as that endpoint – as valid, and will work within his general framework. We will not take issue with the premise that history has an end[6], but instead work out how the idea that history is at an end is fundamentally in error. We will delineate where Fukuyama is wrong, why he is wrong, and how the historical events which have transpired over the last three decades have proved him wrong. Before explaining why Fukuyama is so fundamentally in error, we need to explore his thesis, the philosophical roots thereof, and understand how the ‘end of history’ has an important dual meaning.

Author and scholar Francis Fukuyama

The End of History?

Francis Fukuyama did not create or popularize the idea of the ‘end of history’; his intellectual forebears go back centuries, if not millennia, especially if one includes the general idea of a teleological history. The two thinkers who Fukuyama relies on most in his writing and quotes extensively in his 1989 article and 1992 book are Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Alexandre Kojève. Hegel, one of the most famous German philosophers, laid the groundwork for many of the ideologies of the twentieth century, including Fukuyama’s theory in “The End of History?”. He saw the world in idealist terms; that is to say that he thought that ideas were at the root of material reality and not, as materialists claim, the other way around.[7] The forward progress of ideas and political systems occurred through a process of transformation that Hegel called dialectics. Hegel’s theory of dialectics states that all changes are produced through ideological conflict between the current idea (thesis) and that idea’s opposite (antithesis) to create a new idea that merges the two and resolves their contradictions (synthesis).[8] This struggle that results in evolution and revolution can be perceived in the Hegelian conception of history. He saw world history as “the progress of the consciousness of freedom” among individuals and societies; this continual forward motion of history was driven by the divine, what Hegel called ‘World Spirit’.[9] To Hegel, “Freedom is itself its own object of attainment and the sole purpose of Spirit. It is the ultimate purpose toward which all world history has continually aimed.”[10] History, in a Hegelian approach, goes through various stages to reach the ultimate endpoint of true human freedom; these spiritual changes are made immediate and real through the mechanisms of the State, which for Hegel was “the divine Idea as it exists on earth.”[11] Hegel’s focus on political systems and ideologies was fully embraced by Fukuyama in his work. According to Fukuyama, “Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.”[12] For Fukuyama, liberal democratic capitalism was that final form of society and state prophesied by Hegel.

The other major thinker who consistently appears throughout Fukuyama’s writings on the ‘end of history’ is the twentieth-century Russo-French philosopher and historian Alexandre Kojève. Kojève was a modern Hegelian and saw himself as continuing the legacy of that austere philosophical mind. Although he wrote over a century later – and the period between 1806 and the 1930s was a supremely turbulent one – Kojève believed that Hegel was essentially correct when he stated that history had ended in 1806 with Napoleon’s victory over the Prussians at Jena.[13] To Hegel, as well as Kojève, this victory was the final triumph of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution over the despotic absolutism that characterized Europe at the time. There would, at least for a time, be material competitors to liberal states, but the ideology itself had prevailed as no other viable alternatives existed. Kojève saw liberal democracy as the final synthesis in the Hegelian historical dialectic and the realization of what he called the ‘universal and homogenous state’. For Kojève, this ‘universal and homogenous state’ “represented the end point of human ideological evolution beyond which it was impossible to progress further.”[14] Although there were ups and downs with respect to historical events after Jena – including Napoleon’s final defeat less than a decade later and his replacement by the Bourbon absolutist Louis XVIII – Kojève saw these as no more than minor hiccups or new “alignment[s] of the provinces” that would only serve to aid in the transition to the ‘universal and homogenous state’.[15] Kojève’s ‘Last Man’ was the archetypal personage who inhabited the ‘universal and homogenous state’ at the ‘end of history’. This ‘Last Man’ would be completely free of conflict and would only satisfy his urges through economic activity; Kojève compared this man to the baser animals, as he had no further need for the existential ideological battle that defined humanity.[16] In Kojève’s eyes, the cessation of the work and struggle for recognition that epitomized human history would lead to the end of “Man properly so-called”.[17] The idea of the ‘Last Man’ living in the ‘universal and homogenous state’ was the keystone to Fukuyama’s thesis of the ‘end of history’. Fukuyama, agreeing with Kojève, stated that:

… human history and the conflict that characterized it was based on the existence of “contradictions”: primitive man’s quest for mutual recognition, the dialectic of the master and slave, the transformation and mastery of nature, the struggle for the universal recognition of rights, and the dichotomy between proletarian and capitalist. But in the universal homogenous state, all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs are satisfied. There is no struggle or conflict over ‘large’ issues, and consequently no need for generals or statesmen; what remains is primarily economic activity.[18]

Fukuyama accepted the premises of both Hegel and Kojève and updated them for his own era, in which he saw the flowering of the ‘end of history’ that his predecessors theorized. Not only was the ‘end of history’ reachable for Fukuyama, it was fully realized in the post-Cold War era of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Much of Francis Fukuyama’s article and subsequent book on the ‘end of history’ mirrors and updates the ideas of Hegel and Kojève. Fukuyama sees history through a teleological lens, with the ultimate end being the liberal democratic capitalist system in which we currently live. Fukuyama regards this ‘end’ as having a dual meaning: it is both the endpoint or completion stage of history as well as being the goal or point of history. The two meanings of ‘end’ are seen as mutually reinforcing, as the idea that history is coming to a stop only makes sense in a dialectical system if the final synthesis is perfect and free of internal contradictions. To Fukuyama, the ‘end of history’ was reached after the conclusion of the Cold War, with the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.”[19] He saw this triumph as “evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism,”[20] given the twentieth-century downfall of absolutism, fascism, and communism. He consistently references the term ‘liberal democratic capitalism’ as the final stage in the evolution or progression of history, but what does he mean by this?

Fukuyama briefly summarizes “the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.”[21] Besides the hopelessly outdated technological references, this description demands further analysis. It is useful to take each of these key terms on its own to better understand what Fukuyama means by each and how his definitions are extremely limited and somewhat unhelpful. First, we must define and understand what Fukuyama means when he says ‘liberal’. According to Fukuyama, “Political liberalism can be defined simply as a rule of law that recognizes certain individual rights or freedoms from government control.”[22] He defines these fundamental rights in a traditional way, focusing on the three major categories of civil rights respecting person and property, religious rights respecting freedom of conscience, and political rights such as press freedom.[23] This definition can be limiting, however, as most of the major conflicts around rights revolve around the difficult edge cases like so-called ‘hate speech’ or libel; different societies which Fukuyama would consider ‘liberal’ could have widely variant versions of these fundamental rights as well as different conceptions of which rights to prioritize over others. Another issue with respect to this definition of ‘liberal’ is the question of tolerance: is it liberal or illiberal to tolerate ideas that are antithetical to the basis of liberalism? This is a tough question that does not have a universal answer or perspective and, as we will see later, it can expose serious contradictions in liberal society. The next term that matters here is ‘democratic’ or ‘democracy’. Fukuyama has a stricter definition of this term than he did for ‘liberalism’; he says that “A country is democratic if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through periodic, secret-ballot, multi-party elections, on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage.”[24] This definition has the opposite problem to his definition of ‘liberal’ – it focuses too much on the formal and, if taken literally, can be too stifling to cover what most people would agree are actual democracies. If we accept Fukuyama’s definition at face value and agree that formal democracy matters most, we would be praising authoritarian states like Iran, Russia, and Turkey, all of which have ostensibly secret-ballot, multi-party elections based on equal suffrage. Most current observers would likely see those three examples as non-democratic states despite their paper democracies. Another issue comes if we choose to take Fukuyama’s terms strictly; this would filter out states like the aforementioned Russia, Iran, and Turkey, but would also lead to the United States of America not being considered democratic. After all, we restrict the franchise to non-felon citizens over eighteen years of age and often do not have open primaries or party conventions. A final question comes to mind when thinking about democracy and its relationship with liberalism; would a society still be liberal or democratic if it voted, on democratic terms, to abolish key freedoms or grant life tenure to an elected leader? As we will discuss, this is an issue many societies are facing in the twenty-first century. Finally, we must understand what Fukuyama means by ‘capitalism’ or economic liberalism. He focuses on capitalism as being “the recognition of the right of free economic activity and economic exchange based on private property and markets,” and sees the “attitude the state takes in principle to the legitimacy of private property and enterprise” as most important aspect of this. [25] In Fukuyama’s mind “Those that protect such economic rights we will consider liberal [i.e. capitalist]; those that are opposed or base themselves on other principles (such as ‘economic justice’) will not qualify.”[26] This definition is understandable and persuasive, yet Fukuyama does not often apply it in a reasonable manner. For instance, he sees ‘market authoritarians’ as still falling under the umbrella of capitalism[27], but, as we shall see, this form of capitalism is, at best, a bastardization and, at worst, a completely different economic system. Fukuyama also underestimates the internal malcontents of economically liberal systems, which we will explore later.

A Familiar Refrain?

In his article in The National Interest, Fukuyama poses the question which we will be answering for the remainder of this essay: “Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental ‘contradictions’ in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?”[28] Fukuyama believes, as shown above, that we are at the ‘end of history’ and that “the basic principles of the liberal democratic state could not be improved upon.”[29] This assertion may be correct for those people who value the ideals pursued by liberal democratic capitalist societies (as does the author of this essay), but the nature and values of different human societies may lead to fiercer and more persuasive ideological competition than Hegel, Kojève, or Fukuyama had ever anticipated. After more than three decades have passed since Fukuyama’s writing, history has reasserted itself with a fervor. Liberal democratic capitalism is under siege from all quarters; it is challenged by viable external competitors and attacked from within by those discontented with it. Fukuyama did not fully appreciate the outside opponents or internal enemies of the ‘universal and homogenous state’, and undersold the impact of the inevitable unforeseen events of world history.

Chairman Xi Jinping stands before delegates at the closing session of the nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Thomas Peter/Reuters

External Rivals: China and Russia

The biggest threat to Fukuyama’s liberal democratic capitalist world order comes from its global ideological, political, and military rivals. These two major competing systems – the market totalitarianism of China and the oligarchic nationalism of Russia – present dangers to the ‘end of history’. The level of threat of each has waxed and waned over the course of the past three decades, but both have materialized as significant challenges to liberal democracy in the twenty-first century. Of these two, the peril posed by the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party is the most pressing at the time of writing and looks to continue this trend into the future.

One line from Fukuyama’s 1989 article is both striking and now, it seems, discordant: “But the power of the liberal idea would seem much less impressive if it had not infected the largest and oldest culture in Asia, China.”[30] Unfortunately for him (and the rest of the world), China seems to have recovered from its liberal ‘infection’; the totalitarian mercantilist state run by the Chinese Communist Party is a menace to Fukuyama’s liberal democratic capitalist order. In fact, it is a danger to each plank of that tripartite system – China is radically illiberal, it is firmly anti-democratic, and its form of capitalism is authoritarian and mercantilist. To begin with, we must understand the extreme illiberalism of the Chinese regime. China is not, contrary to popular Western understanding, a racially or religiously homogenous state; there are significant populations of ethnic and religious minorities scattered throughout the massive country. These minorities include the Buddhists of Tibet, whose spiritual leader has been exiled from China for over sixty years, and the Falun Gong sect, whose religious practice is stamped out with vigorous force by the government. A British panel of human rights experts found in 2019 that “China is murdering members of the Falun Gong spiritual group and harvesting their organs for transplant,”[31] a clear violation of Fukuyama’s trifecta of civil, religious, and political rights. The repression of the Falun Gong is, incredibly, not the worst subjugation of minorities being carried out by the Chinese regime – that terrible ‘honor’ goes to the Muslim population of Xinjiang, the Uighurs. This ethnic and religious group has lived in the area formerly known as Kashgaria or East Turkestan for thousands of years and has practiced Islam for centuries. The Chinese government does not allow for religious observance or the existence of a substantial minority culture, indeed it takes the idea of a ‘universal homogenous state’ to its horrifying realization. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China currently has over one million Uighur civilians in de facto concentration camps where the regime has been committing a progressive cultural genocide on the population.[32] People in these camps are subject to forced oaths and confessions, sexual abuse, constant aggressive surveillance, forced sterilizations, and torture; their relatives abroad are blackmailed with the internment of their parents or children back in China.[33] Besides these genocidal abuses of power, the Chinese regime also engages in systematic suppression of the free press, expels foreign journalists, and controls and monitors the internet with an iron fist. Despite the clear illiberalism of these strategies, they have gained some prominent converts in the West. In April 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the Western world, The Atlantic published an article by two American law professors praising China’s strict control of online speech. The piece can be summed up by these lines:

In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.[34]

Fukuyama expected the liberalism of the West to rub off on China; he did not anticipate the illiberalism of the Chinese Communist Party to be embraced by the West. Chinese repression of free speech and its totalitarian control of information have come under increased scrutiny during the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic; the virus that has killed scores around the world originated in China and spread rapidly largely due to a government cover-up. A comprehensive timeline of China’s coronavirus statements and actions clearly shows how that country’s government dissembled, covered up, and outright lied to global health officials and foreign governments.[35] The issue was systematic and made far worse by the Chinese Communist Party’s total control of information; that regime’s illiberalism has cost the world trillions in lost economic productivity and, at a bare minimum, hundreds of thousands of lives lost.

China also is a threat to the democratic part of Fukuyama’s world order at the ‘end of history’. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been an authoritarian one-party state run by a series of appointed rulers. The system is entirely democratically illegitimate and has a bad habit of forcibly snuffing out any sort of democratic movement which pokes it head out of hiding. One of these events occurred between the writing of Fukuyama’s article in 1989 and the publication of his book in 1992; the Tiananmen Square massacres likely killed thousands of peaceful student demonstrators right in the heart of Chinese Communist power in Beijing. These brave martyrs for democracy are forever represented by the figure of ‘Tank Man’, who stood in front of the government’s tanks and died for the cause of liberty; the Chinese government still, to this day, refuses to acknowledge the massacre. In more modern times, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to stamp out the rising democracy movement in Hong Kong. These protestors, who want China to follow the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach agreed with the British government upon the hand-over of the island territory in 1997, have been generally peaceful. They are protesting the increasing authoritarianism of the Chinese government and have been met with steadily worsening police violence, including a “clear pattern of unnecessary and excessive force.”[36] Dissenters from the party line in Beijing are often ‘disappeared’ and forced confessions, solitary confinement, and torture are commonplace. Some have called the regime’s strategy “governance through disappearance”; these abuses impact anyone who refuses to go along with the government, including Communist Party members and economic elites.[37] This anti-democratic nature has been fully enshrined in Chinese law, as the country’s current dictator, Xi Jinping, has officially abolished term limits and declared himself ‘president for life’.[38] This ‘reform’ firmly entrenches the power of Xi, who was also elevated to the same status as the infamous Chairman Mao through the inclusion of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the Chinese constitution[39]; this increasing cult of personality bodes ill for the future of Chinese democracy.

The third pillar of Fukuyama’s world order, capitalism, is also threatened by the Chinese Communist regime. China has not adopted capitalism as much as it has adapted it; China’s version of modern capitalism is more akin to a technocratic mercantilism controlled from the top. China has an immense state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector which has grown massively since the beginning of marketization under Deng Xiaoping in 1978; as of 2019, there were more than 150,000 SOEs in China over which the Chinese Communist Party has been steadily increasing its control.[40] These enterprises are heavily subsidized and often are granted monopoly control of important sectors or industries. The strong state involvement in Chinese companies makes their system non-capitalist; still, it is seen as attractive by many developing countries as it has driven immense economic growth.[41] China also abuses the global capitalist order through its use of economic blackmail and its significant level of intellectual property theft. According to a survey of North American companies conducted by CNBC, a full twenty percent of businesses claimed their intellectual property was stolen by China in the last year alone[42]; this issue has been raised by the Trump administration in its trade negotiations with the Chinese. In terms of economic coercion, definitely not a liberal capitalist standard, China has frequently used financial threats to advance political aims, including recently threatening Australia over that nation’s concern about the origins of the coronavirus.[43] These coercive policies are applied with even greater vigor against China’s ostensible friends in the developing world. The Belt and Road Initiative, a favorite of Xi Jinping’s, is a massive infrastructure investment program, over eight-times larger than the Marshall Plan (inflation-adjusted)[44]; it is meant to span the globe with land-based and maritime infrastructure to accelerate trade and connect China with Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. Unlike the Marshall Plan, which was largely made up of grants and purchase agreements, the Belt and Road Initiative is based mostly on debt owed to the Chinese government.[45] These ‘debt traps’ are the epitome of predatory lending and the Chinese regime has used them cannily as leverage to gain military footholds in the Indian Ocean and Africa. Chinese military expansion has also been significant in the South China Sea, where they have asserted sovereignty over a massive area – completely unsupported by international law. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea—and the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonized” its neighbors who have legitimate claims.[46] The Chinese government has, over the past decade, created militarized islands out of uninhabited reefs in the South China Sea and has become increasingly aggressive towards legal non-Chinese civilian and military activity in the area.[47] As of this writing, the Chinese Communist Party had largely escaped censure from liberal democracies for any of the appallingly illiberal, anti-democratic, and anti-capitalist behavior they have exhibited over the past thirty years. Fukuyama’s assertions that “China can no longer act as a beacon for illiberal forces around the world”[48] and that “Chinese competitiveness and expansionism on the world scene have virtually disappeared,”[49] have unfortunately been proven faulty in the extreme.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The other major ideology that is confronting liberal democratic capitalism in the twenty-first century is the oligarchic authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia regressed to its nineteenth-century expansionist Tsarist roots; in the debate between the late Charles Krauthammer and Fukuyama over whether Russia’s future would look like its past, Krauthammer was proven correct.[50] Vladimir Putin, since his accession to power in 2000, has cemented an authoritarian grip on Russia; he has declared himself ruler for life, criminalized much of his opposition, and extrajudicially murdered the rest.[51] His regime is increasingly illiberal and has interfered with democracies in Europe and the United States in order to sow discord and promote candidates and parties that are more welcoming to the new Russian message.[52] Putin has worked to undermine the young democracies of the former Warsaw Pact, as well as pushing disinformation against NATO countries and the European Union; he sees the “liberal idea” as “obsolete” and past its prime.[53] Russia has passionately returned to its ancient Slavophile cause, a development presaged by Fukuyama in 1989[54]; still, in his 1992 book, Fukuyama said that Russian nationalism was evolving towards a ‘small Russia’ concept[55], an idea that has been belied by that government’s actions. In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea, taking it by force from Ukraine; this was the first forcible annexation of European territory since the second World War.[56] Russia’s casus belli was its old Slavophile excuse of local repression and strong native desire to join Russia territorially; this rationale was undermined by Russia’s tactics in its invasion. Instead of marching in openly and being greeted happily by the adoring throngs of Slavs, Russia sent in covert forces, or ‘little green men’, who were “clearly professional soldiers…[and] wore Russian combat fatigues but with no identifying insignia.”[57] This allowed for plausible deniability on the part of Russia and kept the Ukrainian troops at bay until it was too late. Russia faced almost no significant international blowback from this invasion or its military support for other Ukrainian rebels in the east of that nation and has continued to destabilize its neighbors for its own benefit. The Russian model of forceful nationalism under an illiberal oligarchy is growing in attractiveness to many of the disadvantaged living under liberal democratic capitalist regimes, as is the Chinese alternative.

Internal Enemies: Discontents on the Left and the Right

External threats are not the only type of challenge posed to Fukuyama’s liberal democratic order; over the thirty years since he wrote, unhappiness with liberalism, democracy, and capitalism has drastically increased in Western societies, both from the political left and right. From the left, two attacks on the system have proved serious: the newfound approval of socialism among Western youth and the illiberal doctrines of Post-Modernism and intersectionality. The right has its own issues, seeing a concerning rise in nationalism and an accelerating interest in illiberal integralism by prominent Catholic intellectuals. The internal contradictions of the liberal democratic capitalist order that are exposed by these movements could bring down the entire façade, crushing Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’.

The challenge posed by the left-wing enemies of liberal democratic capitalism seems to this author to be more difficult to overcome, as it focuses on the structural inequalities inherent in the world order, has significant youth support, and has picked up steam in influential academic circles. Fukuyama, in his 1989 article, stated that “the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West”[58]; as the popular resurgence of socialism indicates, Fukuyama was supremely mistaken in this assertion. One may agree with Fukuyama’s opinion on economics (as this author does), but it is clear that capitalism’s discontents are gaining power and influence across the West. Much of this movement against capitalism comes from younger members of society who have little or no recollection of the horrors of socialism and whose outlook has been molded by the travails of the Great Recession. According to the pollster Gallup, Americans aged eighteen to thirty-nine thought equally positively about capitalism and socialism in 2019; the terms ‘free enterprise’ and ‘big business’ saw similar declines in popularity as did capitalism.[59] This negative view towards liberal economics is most dramatically evident in the opinions of the younger members of society, who as they age will come to hold political and social power and can better implement these anti-capitalist feelings. Socialism has had a resurgence in popularity in the West politically, as we have seen the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America party, the repeat presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders, and the popularity of statist proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. With the Howard Zinn-ification of much of American history education, even evil Communist regimes of the past are getting a fresh coat of paint; anyone venturing into the wilds of the Internet will find a vast subculture of support for regimes like Venezuela, Cuba, the USSR, and Maoist China, as well as illiberal groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. We should not expect the West to turn into a Marxist dictatorship overnight, but the trend should be concerning for anyone like Fukuyama who values the liberal order.

Another strain of thought on the left that has the potential to upend or cripple Western liberal democratic capitalism is that of Post-Modernism generally, and intersectionality more specifically. Post-Modernism as a theory and approach problematizes all knowledge as purely subjective and sees Fukuyama’s liberal democratic capitalist order as oppressive and needing sweeping change. Post-Modernists have no attachment to liberalism, seeing it simply as “a means, a ‘technology’ of rule”[60]; and actively seek to “radically transform the knowledge that constitutes the history and politics we practice.”[61] This focus on destroying truth and knowledge clearly cuts at the Enlightenment heart of the liberal democratic capitalist order. Under the broader heading of Post-Modernism falls the more specific danger of intersectionality. Intersectionality is a social theory, first posited by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, to explain how different forms of discrimination could interlock and shape a person’s life or perspective; it has evolved into a totalizing ideology that focuses foremost on promoting identity politics.[62] According to various critics of intersectionality as an ideology, “the development of intersectionality, especially in Crenshaw’s second paper on the topic, called ‘Mapping the Margins’ (1991), can be considered a landmark moment in our cultural turn toward critical identity politics as a potential replacement for liberalism.”[63] To intersectional activists, the liberal value of tolerance is merely a smokescreen for the protection and advancement of white supremacy; they do not see tolerance of the expression of uncomfortable, offensive, or downright despicable perspectives as important for safeguarding liberty in society and instead wish to ‘de-platform’ or expunge these ideas versus arguing with and disproving them. It is not only critics, however, who see intersectionality as a totalizing, radically revisionist political theory; Crenshaw, in an interview with the publication Vox, says so herself. From that story:

Crenshaw doesn’t want to replicate existing power dynamics and cultural structures just to give people of color power over white people, for example. She wants to get rid of those existing power dynamics altogether — changing the very structures that undergird our politics, law, and culture in order to level the playing field.[64]

What Crenshaw and the supporters of identity politics see as leveling, proponents of the liberal order see as illiberal and inherently destabilizing to a diverse society that prizes equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech, and personal merit.

Law professor and activist Kimberle Crenshaw

On the right side of the political spectrum, challengers to the reigning liberal democratic capitalist order are also appearing and becoming more widespread in their popularity. The biggest threat from the right to the ideology of liberal democratic capitalism comes from the surging tide of populist nationalism that is inundating many Western societies, from Europe to the United States. It seems that the long-held “configuration of Western political systems [that] has featured strong center-left and center-right parties or coalitions that support the basic principles and institutions of liberal democracy,” is collapsing in favor of what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy”. [65] Illiberal nationalist parties have grown in popularity across the world, including in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Italy, and Germany. Their approach answers a question we explored earlier, that of whether a liberal democracy can vote itself out of either of those two descriptors; it is clear from history that “Although democracy was typically conjoined with liberalism in the twentieth-century West, the two are not inseparably linked.”[66] Historically, most democracies were not liberal, either restricting certain rights or the voting franchise itself; modern-day illiberal democracies wish to return to this history. Another right-wing ideology which sees itself as a return to a historical form of government and society is Catholic integralism. Some prominent conservative Catholic intellectuals are “rethink[ing] the truce with liberalism,”[67] including Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari, and the editors of the religious magazine First Things. According to Park MacDougald writing in City Journal, “The essence of Deneen’s argument was that a host of contemporary social pathologies, ranging from economic inequality to loneliness and environmental destruction, are not accidental; they flow logically from liberalism’s premise that humans are (and should be) autonomous, self-creating individuals.”[68] This argument has been expanded on in a more radical way by the Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, whose “view amounts to a total repudiation of the existing American regime.”[69] In a recent article for The Atlantic, Vermeule argues for what he calls ‘common-good constitutionalism’ in American jurisprudence. He writes, “Common-good constitutionalism is also not legal liberalism or libertarianism. Its main aim is certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power (an incoherent goal in any event), but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.”[70] One could easily picture this sort of sentiment springing from the mouth of a French absolutist King or a Russian Tsar; Vermeule’s “illiberal legalism”[71] and the ideology of Catholic integralism are oriented directly against the current liberal democratic capitalist order and harken back to an authoritarian past.

The Importance of Historical Events

The final issue that dooms Fukuyama’s idea that we are at the ‘end of history’ is his underestimation of the impact of world historical events. In his 1989 article, he denigrates the importance of ‘mere’ events by claiming they will still “fill the pages of Foreign Affairs’s yearly summary of international relations,”[72] but do little else given the ascendancy of the liberal idea. In this, Fukuyama has been proven to be supremely in error by the events of the subsequent thirty-one years. Ideologies, governments, politics, and economics can all change rapidly given the pressure of events; indeed, the former Chief of Staff for President Obama, Rahm Emanuel, said in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”[73] This attitude is widely held by people on all sides of the political spectrum and can be seen in action throughout the past three decades. Since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, the world has seen at least three historically significant events: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the global financial crisis that began in 2007, and the current coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the world. These events have shaken the foundations of the liberal democratic capitalist order, impacting all three aspects of that system. On the liberal front, the attacks of September 11 led to increased surveillance and curtailment of civil liberties across the Western world; the coronavirus pandemic has led many to embrace tighter restrictions on speech, assembly, and worship, all fundamental liberal rights. With respect to democracy, the threats of terrorism and pandemic disease have created permission structures for leaders to declare states of emergency and suspend various legislative or democratic processes, including elections. Finally, the global shock of the Great Recession has led to a rapid increase in populist anti-capitalist agitation and rhetoric from both the left (Occupy Wall Street) and the right (Tea Party movements), further chipping at the foundations of the world order.

‘Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’

Although a great deal has changed since the initial publication of Francis Fukuyama’s article “The End of History?” in 1989, the international political picture seems to be reverting to what Fukuyama would call an ‘historical’ era. Since 1989, there has been no greater and deeper danger to the liberal democratic capitalist world order – the ‘end of history’ – than that which it is facing today. This “final form of human government”[74] has significant external rivals in the market totalitarianism of China and the illiberal oligarchy of Russia, serious internal challenges from the left and right, and is staring down the barrel of the most severe viral pandemic (and concomitant recession) in over a century. The combination of increased geopolitical threats from competitor ideologies, internal political strife over the structure and role of society and the state, and economic upheaval is not a new one; in fact, it resembles the general picture of world affairs between the unification of Germany in 1871 and the second World War in 1945. This world – as well as the worlds of the Napoleonic period and the Cold War – was one that was driven by Great Power conflict in the material and ideological realms between somewhat equal competitor states. The current external enemies of liberal democratic capitalism, as described earlier, are China and Russia, which also represent two competing ideologies that undermine the core premises of liberalism. As in those earlier eras, Western societies must fight back against their rivals and assert the superiority of their system of government and economic organization to emerge victorious.

Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s theory could be detrimental here; the only way to truly reach an ‘end of history’ is for the ‘Last Man’ to not act like one – that is, to continue fighting for liberal democracy and vanquishing its foes. If the ‘Last Man’ acts more like Fukuyama describes – bored, nostalgic, contented – history will return, with a vengeance. It is unlikely that human society will ever reach ‘the end of history’, as conflict and change are constants, but we may be able to avoid repeating the horrific humanitarian results which accompanied the last few rounds of Great Power competition. As time has passed, it seems more likely that the period in which Fukuyama wrote was an outlier in history instead of the ‘end of history’; society was changing rapidly, but through that change it has reverted to earlier forms of world affairs. As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.


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[1] Joshua J. Mark, “Heraclitus of Ephesus,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified July 14, 2010, https://www.ancient.eu/Heraclitus_of_Ephesos/.

[2] Mark.

[3] “French Expression of the Day: Plus ça change,” The Local, January 7, 2019, https://www.thelocal.fr/20190107/french-expression-of-the-day

[4] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184.

[5] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 4.

[6] This author has quite a problem with Fukuyama’s teleology, and teleology generally, but the focus of this essay is to accept Fukuyama’s argument while presenting the evidence that disproves it.

[7] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 6.

[8] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (New York: The Free Press, Macmillan, 1992): 61.

[9] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Reason In History, a general introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Robert S. Hartman (Liberal Arts Press, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1953) https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hi/introduction.htm.

[10] Hegel.

[11] Hegel.

[12] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 4.

[13] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 4-5.

[14] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 66.

[15] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 66.

[16] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 310-311.

[17] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 310.

[18] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 5.

[19] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 3.

[20] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 3.

[21] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 8.

[22] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 42.

[23] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 42-43.

[24] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 43.

[25] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 44.

[26] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 44.

[27] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 123-125.

[28] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 8.

[29] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 5.

[30] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 11.

[31] Sonia Elks, “China is harvesting organs from Falun Gong members, finds expert panel,” Reuters, June 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-china-rights/china-is-harvesting-organs-from-falun-gong-members-finds-expert-panel-idUSKCN1TI236.

[32] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified November 25, 2019, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uighurs-xinjiang.

[33] Maizland.

[34] Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Keane Woods, “Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal,” The Atlantic Online, last modified April 27, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/what-covid-revealed-about-internet/610549/.

[35] Jim Geraghty, “The Comprehensive Timeline of China’s COVID-19 Lies,” National Review Online, March 23, 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/the-morning-jolt/chinas-devastating-lies/.

[36] “Patterns of repression: Timeline of the 2019 Hong Kong protests,” Amnesty International, last modified October 11, 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/timeline-of-the-2019-hong-kong-protests/.

[37] Michael Caster, “A missing Chinese property tycoon exposes how Xi Jinping governs through enforced disappearance,” Hong Kong Free Press, April 13, 2020, https://hongkongfp.com/2020/04/13/a-missing-chinese-property-tycoon-exposes-how-xi-jinping-governs-through-enforced-disappearance/.

[38] “China’s Xi allowed to remain ‘president for life’ as term limits removed,” BBC News Online, March 11, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-43361276.

[39] BBC News Online.

[40] Karen Jingrong Lin, Xiaoyan Lu, Junsheng  Zhang, and Ying Zheng, “State-owned enterprises in China: A review of 40 years of research and practice,” China Journal of Accounting Research 13, no. 1 (March 2020): 31-55, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1755309119300437.

[41] Lin, et al.

[42] Eric Rosenbaum, “1 in 5 corporations say China has stolen their IP within the last year: CNBC CFO survey,” CNBC, last modified March 1, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/28/1-in-5-companies-say-china-stole-their-ip-within-the-last-year-cnbc.html.

[43] Emily Jacobs, “China makes economic threats against Australia over coronavirus probe,” The New York Post, April 29, 2020, https://nypost.com/2020/04/29/china-threatens-australia-economically-over-coronavirus-probe/.

[44] Dylan Gerstel, “It’s a (Debt) Trap! Managing China-IMF Cooperation Across the Belt and Road,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, https://www.csis.org/npfp/its-debt-trap-managing-china-imf-cooperation-across-belt-and-road.

[45] Gerstel.

[46] “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea,” Global Conflict Tracker, Council on Foreign Relations, last modified April 30, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/territorial-disputes-south-china-sea.

[47] “Territorial Disputes”.

[48] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 12.

[49] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 17.

[50] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 15.

[51] Madeline Roache, “Four Years Ago, Putin Critic Boris Nemtsov Was Shot Dead in Moscow. His Daughter Is Still Seeking Justice,” Time, February 27, 2019, https://time.com/5538047/zhanna-nemtsova-boris-nemtsov-putin/.

[52] Margaret L. Taylor, “Combating disinformation and foreign interference in democracies: Lessons from Europe,” Techtank, Brookings Institution, July 31, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2019/07/31/combating-disinformation-and-foreign-interference-in-democracies-lessons-from-europe/.

[53] Taylor.

[54] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 17.

[55] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 37.

[56] Steven Pifer, “Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation,” Order from Chaos, Brookings Institution, March 17, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/17/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/.

[57] Pifer.

[58] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 9.

[59] Lydia Saad, “Socialism as Popular as Capitalism Among Young Adults in U.S.,” Gallup, November 25, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/268766/socialism-popular-capitalism-among-young-adults.aspx.

[60] Patrick Joyce, “The End of Social History,” in Historians on History, ed. John Tosh (Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2000), 279.

[61] Joan Scott, “Women’s history,” in Historians on History, ed. John Tosh (Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2000), 287.

[62] “Intersectionality,” New Discourses, last modified February 4, 2020, https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-intersectionality/.

[63] New Discourses.

[64] Jane Coaston, “The intersectionality wars,” Vox, last modified May 28, 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination.

[65] Marc F. Plattner, “Illiberal Democracy and the Struggle on the Right,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1 (January 2019): 5-19, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/illiberal-democracy-and-the-struggle-on-the-right/.

[66] Plattner.

[67] Park MacDougald, “A Catholic Debate over Liberalism,” City Journal, Winter 2020, https://www.city-journal.org/catholic-debate-over-liberalism.

[68] MacDougald.

[69] MacDougald.

[70] Adrian Vermeule, “Beyond Originalism,” The Atlantic Online, last modified March 31, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/common-good-constitutionalism/609037/.

[71] Vermeule.

[72] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 4.

[73] Matt Weidinger, “Is ‘corona stimulus’ the latest example of never letting a serious crisis go to waste?”, American Enterprise Institute, last modified March 10, 2020, https://www.aei.org/poverty-studies/is-corona-stimulus-the-latest-example-of-never-letting-a-serious-crisis-go-to-waste/.

[74] Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 4.

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