The American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama has become, perhaps unfairly, something of a punchline in recent years. Written immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, when global pre-eminence was unexpectedly thrust upon the United States, his National Interest essay The End of History?, later elaborated into a bestselling book, has become a shorthand for liberal hubris. Its central argument, that liberal democracy had essentially won the battle of ideologies and that the arc of history seemed to bend inexorably towards the liberal order, seemed to embody the triumphalist optimism of the 1990s and 2000s, establishing the framework for the politics of the era.
Now that history has returned with the vengeance of the long-dismissed, few analyses of our present moment are complete without a ritual mockery of Fukuyama’s seemingly naive assumptions. The also-rans of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations thesis and Robert D. Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy, which predicted a paradigm of growing disorder, tribalism and the breakdown of state authority, now seem more immediately prescient than Fukuyama’s offering.
Yet nearly thirty years later, reading what Fukuyama actually wrote as opposed to the dismissive précis of his ideas, we see that he was right all along. Where Huntington and Kaplan predicted the threat to the Western liberal order coming from outside its cultural borders, Fukuyama discerned the weak points from within, predicting, with startling accuracy, our current moment.
In The Last Man, the under-discussed addendum to The End of History, Fukuyama took his intellectual cues from Nietzsche rather than Hegel, observing that “it is impossible to complete our present discussion without referring to the creature who reportedly emerges at the end of history, the last man,” a creature who is, “in essence, the victorious slave”. With all his demands met and material wants assuaged, will the last man be content at last, pausing the endless revolving wheel of history?
“Left to themselves,” Fukuyama asks, “can those stable, long-standing liberal democracies of Europe and America be indefinitely self-sustaining, or will they one day collapse from some kind of internal rot, much as communism has done?” Beyond the demands for absolute equality, freedom from want and overarching authority which underlie the politics of liberalism, Fukuyama contends, “lies the question of whether there are other deeper sources of discontent within liberal democracy—whether life there is truly satisfying.”
How does this vision compare to the world we live in today? It’s worth noting that Fukuyama radically overestimated the prosperity that the triumphant liberal order would provide for those sheltered under its wings. By all metrics, living standards have declined across the liberal West, leading to the rapid proletarianisation of the middle class in the United States and much of Europe.
The ongoing wave of protests, now curdling into civil conflict in the United States, in which the heavily indebted and downwardly mobile products of the American university system play such a prominent role, represent a serious challenge to the liberal order birthed from within liberalism. Indeed, here it is darkly ironic to observe Fukuyama in 2011 appreciate just such a threat, though he directs his warning at China rather than America.
Debating with Weiwei Zhang, the triumphalist theorist of the Chinese civilisation-state, Fukuyama warns that growing prosperity threatens China’s future stability because “revolutions are never created by poor people. They are actually created by middle-class people. They are created by people who are educated to have opportunities. But these opportunities are blocked by the political or economic system. It is the gap between their expectation and the ability of the system to accommodate their expectation which causes political instability. So the growth of a middle class, I think, is not a guarantee against insurgencies, but a cause of insurgencies.”
Similarly, in The Last Man, Fukuyama underestimates the potential of liberalism to adopt the zealous moral certainties we now see being proclaimed with revolutionary fervour across the United States, claiming that liberal democracies “do not tell their citizens how they should live, or what will make them happy, virtuous, or great… In America today, we feel entitled to criticise another person’s smoking habits, but not his or her religious beliefs or moral behavior.”
Within the realm of liberalism, Fukuyama asserts, the furious passions of the past had, at the time of writing, been superseded by comfort and plenty, and “the loyalties that drove men to desperate acts of courage and sacrifice were proven by subsequent history to be silly prejudices.” Instead, “men with modern educations are content to sit at home, congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism.”
And yet, Fukuyama predicts, this would be only a temporary reprieve from the great revolving wheel of history. Like August 1914, when “many European publics simply wanted war because they were fed up with the dullness and lack of community in civilian life,” the human soul clamours for more than peace and plenty.
Harking back to the Homeric heroic ideal of Thymos, the greater passions which drive man to seek glory and renown, Fukuyama observes that “Thymos is the side of man that deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice, that tries to prove that the self is something better and higher than a fearful, needy, instinctual, physically determined animal. Not all men feel this pull, but for those who do, thymos cannot be satisfied by the knowledge that they are merely equal in worth to all other human beings.”
The danger of liberal democracy, for Fukuyama, is that it cannot assuage these passions. With all our material and political wants satisfied, the human soul will search out deeper, older drives, a need for recognition and glory like that which drove Achilles, foreknowing, to his death on the battlefield of Troy. “Those who remain dissatisfied will always have the potential to restart history,” Fukuyama observes, simply because “the virtues and ambitions called forth by war are unlikely to find expression in liberal democracies.” Instead of a world of pacific consumers, blissful lotus eaters happy to enjoy the material benefits and hedonic pleasures of liberalism, “the absence of regular and constructive outlets for megalothymia may simply lead to its later resurgence in an extreme and pathological form.”
In this world— our world— Fukuyama argues, people “will want to risk their lives in a violent battle, and thereby prove beyond any shadow of a doubt to themselves and to their fellows that they are free. They will deliberately seek discomfort and sacrifice, because the pain will be the only way they have of proving definitively that they can think well of themselves, that they remain human beings.”
We are reminded here of Orwell’s comparison of the Utopian technocratic appeals of liberalism, the essential “falsity” of their “hedonistic attitude to life,” with the dark, heroic passions offered by Hitler to the German people. “Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet,” Orwell observes, adding “whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.”
In a world with no great causes, where all the grand passions and conflicts of the past have been settled, Fukuyama predicts, “if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.”
We can see these frustrated passions in the way the miseries of the Syrian Civil War provided a source of relief for thousands of frustrated Westerners who flocked to join one side or another, or to propagandise for their chosen faction from behind a computer screen. As Fukuyama notes, “the fact that a large historical world co-exists with the post-historical one means that the former will hold attractions for certain individuals precisely because it continues to be a realm of struggle, war, injustice, and poverty,” observing astutely that “it is probably healthy for liberal democracies that the Third World exists to absorb the energies and ambitions of such people; whether it is good for the Third World is a different matter.”
We see it also in the stirrings of the multifaceted revolt against the liberal order growing at home, whether the warnings of the Catholic integralist R. R Reno that, tired of the bloodless anomie of liberalism, people will search out “strong gods” in their search for meaning, or in Jacob Siegel and Angela Nagle’s typology of the alt-right as a front in “modernity’s perennial war against itself” which ends with “a camp of rebels fleeing freedom into an embrace of violence, absolutism and the idolatry of race”.
Liberalism, for Fukuyama, if severed from its pre-liberal roots, is destined to fail. “Stable democracy requires a sometimes irrational democratic culture,” he cautions, “and a spontaneous civil society growing out of pre-liberal traditions.” Indeed, there is in The Last Man, a striking distaste for the blandness of liberalism, an aesthetic and moral disgust with the world liberal principles has brought into being that goes beyond conservatism into reaction.
“Liberal economic principles provide no support for traditional communities; quite the contrary, they tend to atomize and separate people,” Fukuyama warns. Contrary to the assertions of absolute equality which, at least rhetorically, govern the liberal order, Fukuyama argues that if liberalism attempts “to outlaw differences between the ugly and beautiful, or pretend that a person with no legs is not just the spiritual but the physical equal of someone whole in body, then the argument will in the fullness of time become self-refuting, just as communism was.”
Like any 21st century internet reactionary, Fukuyama pronounces that “a civilization devoid of anyone who wanted to be recognized as better than others, and which did not affirm in some way the essential health and goodness of such a desire, would have little art or literature, music or intellectual life. It would be incompetently governed, for few people of quality would choose a life of public service. It would not have much in the way of economic dynamism; its crafts and industries would be pedestrian and unchanging, and its technology second-rate.”
Furthermore, Fukuyama predicts, in a startlingly prescient passage foreshadowing the rise of the 21st century civilisation-state, “perhaps most critically, it would be unable to defend itself from civilizations that were infused with a greater spirit of megalothymia, whose citizens were ready to forsake comfort and safety and who were not afraid to risk their lives for the sake of dominion”.
In his aristocratic distaste for the world summoned into being by the temporary triumph of liberalism, his Nietzchean disgust at the Last Man it has created, and his awareness of the stronger and more meaningful passions aroused by the prospect of struggle, sacrifice and glory, Fukuyama is widely at variance with the worldview ascribed to him. Were he writing in today’s more hysterical climate rather than in the early 1990s, he would more likely be accused of meandering towards fascism than of liberal triumphalism.
“The virtues and ambitions called forth by war are unlikely to find expression in liberal democracies,” he observes, and not in celebration. His Last Men, “those earnest young people trooping off to law and business school, who anxiously fill out their résumés in hopes of maintaining the lifestyles to which they believe themselves entitled,” neutered by the “liberal project of filling one’s life with material acquisitions and safe, sanctioned ambitions,” are more or less identical to the “Bugmen” of the modern internet far-right.
Indeed, Fukuyama uncannily foreshadows writers of the modern internet Right like the pseudonymous Bronze Age Pervert, whose Nietzchean glorification of the piratical hero, the Homeric warrior or steppe warlord figure come to overthrow the liberal order in its age of terminal chaos is viewed by liberals as a hateful threat and by a sprinkling of American conservatives as a source of inspiration.
The lazy popular reading of Fukuyama as a liberal triumphalist ignores the darker prophecies he appended to his bestseller, the stark warning that “modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom.” He warns us that, contrary to the assertions so often invoked in his name, “those who remain dissatisfied will always have the potential to restart history”.
Observing the world around us, particularly the wave of popular protests in America, the omphalos of liberalism, that have already devolved into shootings and revenge killings, we now see clearly they already have.