Happily ever after
- The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
Hamish Hamilton, 418 pp, £20.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 241 13013 1
In 1989 the National Interest, an American journal, published an article by Francis Fukuyama called ‘The End of History’. It was reprinted around the world in a buzz of discussion. Was Fukuyama right to claim that the End of Communism spells the End of History? Not many people thought that he was.
Now we have the book of the article, weighing in at around four hundred pages. It was launched earlier this year in a buzz of publicity such as few books receive. Publicity is expensive. What, one asks, made this book so special?
Certainly, the title is dramatic. But it does not mean what most readers will expect it to mean. Fukuyama accepts that events will go on happening and that more humans will be born. He is talking about the end of history in the sense of its culminating goal or completion (telos). His thesis is that, ever since the advent of modern science in the 17th century, history has been moving in a quite definite direction, towards the kind of liberal democracy in a capitalist economy that we see exemplified in the USA and many other countries today. The combination of capitalism and liberal democracy provides, for the first time in human history, a stable solution to the problem of how to arrange for the harmonious and simultaneous satisfaction of all the main needs of human nature. Accordingly, a country which achieves both capitalism and liberal democracy has no reason to move on. The goal has been reached. What was sought is found. They can all live happily ever after.
To understand why, according to Fukuyama, readers of the London Review of Books are in a position to live happily ever after, we need first to understand human nature. To do that we open the fourth book of Plato’s Republic, where we learn that the human soul consists of three parts. The appetitive part houses the desires for food, drink and sex which must be satisfied if life is to continue. The middle part, called thymos, is centred on the desire for recognition by others: it erupts in anger at a slight or injustice, it strives to win honour and fame in a noble cause. The reasoning part is concerned with truth, knowledge and the overall good. For human beings to be happy, they need a political system through which all three parts can be satisfied and brought into harmony under the guidance of reason.
Plato argued that the only system capable of solving the problem was the authoritarian hierarchical structure of his ideally just city, in which the family and private property are abolished for the philosophers who are to rule everyone else. Fukuyama’s claim is that capitalism and liberal democracy have actually done it – so far as it can be done in the real world. He argues this in two stages, first laying out the advantages of capitalism for the appetitive part of the soul, then the advantages of liberal democracy for the thymos. The upshot is that Plato’s drastic, utopian measures are unnecessary. The aims of his Republic are comfortably realised in Britain and the USA.
Vol. 14 No. 17 · 10 September 1992
From Charles Fairbanks Jr
M.F. Burnyeat’s review of Fukuyama’s End of History (LRB, 23 July) so trivialises the important debate that ought to be opening up with the collapse of Communism that it deserves some protest. Nearly every action the democracies take presupposes the superiority of democracy, human rights and equality to every other system. When we disregard their claims, our most callous statesmen have to use ‘budgets’ or ‘realism’ or ‘vital interests’ to justify it. And we don’t think that democracy in England is just good luck, something racial, or a rare family tradition-we think it isn’t senseless to demand it in Peking or Moscow. In other words, we assume that there are powerful forces working for democracy in history. We usually don’t try to make these assumptions entirely clear. But the collapse of Communism has made many people suddenly wonder whether our vague, unarticulated assumptions may not be more literally true. Why not try to think through the implications of such an assertion to see whether they are defensible? This is Fukuyama’s starting-point. I am not convinced by the conclusion, but what is there to sneer at here?
The issue of Irish Home Rule totally determined the shape of British politics from 1884 to 1914, but in retrospect it hardly seems as significant as the contests between capitalism and socialism, aristocracy and egalitarianism, faith and doubt. If we tried to define where a Victorian thinker wound up on questions of science and faith by spotting his ‘insinuations’ about Home Rule, we would drop into inextricable confusion at the very beginning. But this is precisely how Burnyeat proceeds, in seeing Strauss’s philosophic position, which arose when Hitler was destroying the German Jews and German culture, as some kind of simple-minded cover for a ‘message to practical politics’: i.e. Reagan’s message fifty years later on a different continent. It is at this level that Burnyeat apprehends the contemporary intellectual scene. It is the level of a mind that can actually produce the words: ‘in 1992 … the Earth was lost at Rio.’
I was delighted to learn that Fukuyama (and Kojève too, I guess, and Hegel) is a conservative, because I am one. But I am puzzled, because I know Fukuyama well, and I had thought him, to the extent that these labels really describe, something of a liberal. He is an environmentalist, a passionate defender of equality and minority rights, and so forth. Burnyeat’s attitude illustrates a tendency of contemporary liberalism that we conservatives regard as profoundly salutary: its extreme intolerance. You keep exposing people as closet conservatives, against their protests, forcing them into our camp. Long ago Jefferson and Lincoln, Locke and Gladstone and Lloyd George were driven to seek refuge with us; now all the white males in the world are being forced toward our trenches at the point of the bayonet. It’s getting crowded over here. Allan Bloom, intensely irritated at sharing his mess tin with Solzhenitsyn and the pope, keeps trying to sneak away, but is greeted by you with fusillades. Now it looks as though we will have to fight side by side with Strauss, who urged his students to vote for Stevenson in 1952, Kojève, the teacher of Sartre and his crowd, and Hegel, the inspirer of Bakunin and Marx.
We view the purges racking the enemy camp with astonished satisfaction: how could any movement that wishes to compete for political support be so self-destructive? My own guess is that this is the last, fossilised vestige of the High Victorian faith in progress. Only if you are at the peak can you complacently exclude the thinkers who fall a bit short or express it a little strangely: what was radical in 1830 already looked reactionary in 1864. The difference is only this: the Victorians knew what they were progressing toward, you don’t. And thus has the lofty, commanding confidence of Lord Macaulay given place to the frozen sneer of Burnyeat.
Charles Fairbanks Jr
Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, Baltimore
Vol. 14 No. 19 · 8 October 1992
From M.F. Burnyeat
Charles Fairbanks Jr (Letters, 10 September) defends Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man on the grounds that it asks a good question: are there powerful forces working for democracy in history? The sad fact is that good questions can receive poor answers. My review (LRB, 23 July) dealt with Fukuyama’s answers, and some of the methods by which he reached them. I was particularly concerned to explain how Kojève’s reading of Hegel fits into the Straussian scheme of things, because relatively few readers in Britain know about Strauss and his baneful influence in the USA.
The Straussian context also helps to answer a question that has puzzled reviewers: why is the conservative reception of Fukuyama’s book so enthusiastic? My review does not say that Fukuyama himself is a conservative, let alone that Kojève was. On the contrary, I wrote, ‘there are signs in Fukuyama’s book that he is not firmly convinced that Kojève got everything right,’ implying that it is not clear that the book is shaped by his Straussian education. That fact, I was suggesting, is the key to understanding both why it gives poor answers to a good question and why it attracted such acclaim. It was interesting to learn from Fairbanks that Strauss urged his students to vote for Stevenson in 1952. Even more interesting to learn that he told his students how they should vote.
Robinson College, Cambridge
Vol. 14 No. 20 · 22 October 1992
From M.F. Burnyeat
A printing error made my reply to Charles Fairbanks Jr (Letters, 8 October) say the opposite of what it meant. In my letter I wrote, and meant, the following: ‘My review does not say that Fukuyama himself is a conservative, let alone that Kojève was. On the contrary, I wrote, “there are signs in Fukuyama’s book that he is not firmly convinced that Kojève got everything right,” implying that it is not clear what Fukuyama himself believes. What is clear is that the book is shaped by his Straussian education.’
Robinson College, Cambridge