End of History by Francis Fukuyama-A Critique

Abstract

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama attempted to provide a new paradigm for the academia and policy makers for understanding international relations after the fall of the Soviet Union. He argued that after the decline of communism, and the emergence of democracy, the humankind had reached an end point in ideological evolution, what he called the End of History. Henceforth, he maintains, the world would be dominated by liberal democracies less inclined to go to war with each other and more interested in cooperation to maintain peace in the world.

This article summarises the main ideas expressed by Francis Fukuyama in its highly provocative article

Introduction

After the collapse of the USSR in 1989, fundamental changes in the objective realities necessitated a new paradigm for the academia and policy makers for understanding international relations. Consequently, several ideas started competing to find acceptance with the intellectuals of the world. One such idea was the End of History thesis, given by Francis Fukuyama in 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He later perfected it in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”

What was the essence of the End of History thesis? Well, the idea behind this thesis is very simple and can be explained as follows

  1. Hegelian Framework: A great fan of Hegel, Fukuyama accepts Hegelian assertion that ideology, encompassing not just political doctrines, but the religion, culture and moral values of society as well, is the driving force of history. As such, he maintains, to properly view current events one must consider the history of ideology and uses the dialectics or rather a Hegelian dialectics for understanding how history (of ideas) moves forward. Essentially, history moves forward in stages known as three dialectical stages of development namely thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis.
  • Clash of Ideologies: Fukuyama then looks next at mankind’s “common ideological heritage”, and identifies three such alternatives namely fascism, communism, and capitalism. To him, fascism was self-destructive as revealed during World War 2 while communism’s got defeated by the westren liberalism.
  • Triumph of Western Liberalism: Based on the above, he concludes that as the former two have failed to resolve core conflicts of human life, it is now only the  political-economic structure of modern liberalism which is the driving force of history. Consequently, he argues, the humankind had reached an end point in ideological evolution by saying

humanity has reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the End of History, that is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution. There can be no progression from liberal democracy to an alternative system.

  • Universal Peace: Accordingly, he maintains, that following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the world would be dominated by liberal democracies led by the United States. These democracies would be less inclined to go to war with each other and more interested in cooperation to maintain peace in the world.
  • Localised Conflicts: Finally, Fukuyama maintains that the end of history would mean large scale ideological conflict will fade but conflict will continue on another level. Those areas that have not reached the end of history will continue to conflict with those that have. Nationalist conflict and ethnic conflict have not played themselves out yet, and Fukuyama predicts they will result in increases in terrorism. As we move to economic conflict and environmental issues instead of the powerful and inspiring conflicts of history, Fukuyama supposes a state of tediousness may even “serve to get history started once again.”

Before critically assessing the End of History thesis, we must clarify What is End of History.

The concept of an end of history differs from ideas of an end of the world as expressed in various religions, which may forecast a complete destruction of the Earth or of life on Earth, and the end of the human race as we know it. The end of history instead is a political and philosophical concept that supposes that a particular political, economic, or social system may develop that would constitute the end-point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government. It proposes a state in which human life continues indefinitely into the future without any further major changes in society, system of governance, or economics. Rather, in the words of contemporary historian Keith Jenkins, the idea that

“the peculiar ways in which the past was historicized (was conceptualized in modernist, linear and essentially metanarrative forms) has now come to an end of its productive life; the all-encompassing ‘experiment of modernity’ … is passing away into our postmodern condition”.

Interestingly, Francis Fukuyama was not the first one to come up with this idea; several authors before him such as Thomas More, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Vladimir Solovyov, Alexandre Kojève etc have broached this idea arguing that a particular system is the “end of history”. In fact, he was not the author of the term itself. The phrase the end of history was first used by French philosopher and mathematician Antoine Augustin Cournot in 1861 “to refer to the end of the historical dynamic with the perfection of civil society”.

Although Hegel is credited with the the formal development of an idea of an “end of history”, he discussed it in such ambiguous terms that it is unclear whether he thought such a thing was a certainty or a mere possibility. He took the French Revolution as the end point of history because of the triumph of the liberal and democratic system. However, he was careful to qualify his statement by saying that the real world had yet to reach that state, the ideas of man’s universal right to freedom and of government by consent had been realized in the form of an ideology that could not be improved upon. After him, it was re-interpreted by Alexandre Kojève who argued that conflict over the type of “large” issues that characterized history would cease and mostly economic activity would remain.

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis is in fact far above the debate about the rise and fall of great powers or civilisations carried out by great minds throughout history. It is more about the rise and fall of major ideologies such as absolutism, fascism and communism which are the driving forces of civilisations rather than the civilisations themselves. He suggests that the human history should be viewed in terms of a battle of ideologies which has now reached its end in the form of triumph of the Western liberal democracy. Consequently, with the end of the battle, history has also ended as a battle of ideologies although history as a record of events will continue.

Critique

All great ideas, books and personalities are invariably controversial, which in fact makes them great. Thus the end of history thesis by Francis Fukuyama is not without its share of controversy. With its publication, he initiated a global debate about the likely post-Cold War scenarios and soon became a recommended reading for anyone interested in understanding the international politics. And it still rightly occupies a prominent place in this genre of discussions because of its in-depth analysis of complex situation and the kaleidoscopic reach of his conclusions. 

What are the strengths of this thesis and where does it fail, either at intellectual level or practical implications, depends upon one’s own frame of mind. It is internally consistent framework of analysis in the sense that if one agrees with the assumptions he has stated or taken for granted, then the logical conclusion follows as smoothly as night follows the day. For example, if you believe in his implied assumption that the march of history is unidirectional and is synonymous with that of the Western civilisation, then there remains no point to counter it at least at theoretical plane.

However, the reality is quite the opposite. History has never progressed in one direction and is affected by so many constants and variables that it is impossible to predict its future course of action with reasonable accuracy.

Similarly, his premise that this uni-directional movement of history is identifiable with the march of Western civilisation, is questionable. It not only neglects the constructive contributions, made by other civilizations in the past, but also ignores the possibility of the formation of a theoretical and practical alternative by these civilisations in the future. In his analysis, non-Western societies are only dependent variables or subjects of the expansion of the Western values, and institutions.

Keeping aside the above objections, it also suffers from several serious flaws even as an analytical framework. In his zeal to postulate a grand general theory of post-Cold War international relations, he has tried to oversimplify a complex situation by selective application of facts and figures that he feels substantiates his views. He tried to make a long-term civilizational analysis  by choosing short-term indicators of an era which by chance witnessed one of the turning points in the world history.  Fukuyama wanted to give a name to the situation after the collapse of communism. And came up with a sensational term ‘the end of history’, with one-dimensional, ethno-centric perspective.

Several scholars have also criticised him for formulating a theory of endism to prepare the theoretical basis of the staus quo, which the USA wanted to maintain in the post Cold War era. If George F Kennan provided intellectual underpinning and a sort of moral justification for the American policy of containment of the USSR during the period of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama did the same to legitimize and formulate the theoretical framework of the New World Order.

Articulating a theoretical framework for analysing the post-Cold War global politics, he provided a strong perspective for taking policy actions by those who caused the deaths of millions of people in the Middle East and Afghanistan; were they trying to transplant the end of history recommendation of liberal democracy to societies still living in the 16th/17th centuries?

One of the bold statements he made was the emergence of universal peace a a result of the dominance of liberal democracies led by the United States. These democracies would be less inclined to go to war with each other and more interested in cooperation to maintain peace in the world. However, his thesis was completely falsified firstly with Bosnia. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia marked the end of the optimistic dreams of Fukuyama’s bold new world; none of liberal democratic countries tried to end this non-humanitarian event.

In fact, after the September 11, 2001, attacks, The End of History thesis came under scathing criticism and was castigated for its naiveté and undue optimism of the Western world during the 1990s, in thinking that the end of the Cold War also represented the end of major global conflict. While Fareed Zakaria called the 9/11 catastrophe as “the end of the end of history”, George Will jibbed that history had “returned from vacation”.

Lastly, few scholars have castigated Francis Fukuyama for not sufficiently taking into account the power of ethnic loyalties and religious fundamentalism as a counter-force to the spread of liberal democracy, with the specific example of Islamic fundamentalism, or radical Islam, as the most powerful of these.

From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1

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