After the End of History
In the thirty years since Francis Fukuyama declared that history had ‘ended’ with the decisive victory of Western liberal democracy over all other ideologies, his thesis has been mocked as facile, triumphalist or just plain wrong; but it has never quite gone away. This year it could even be said to be having a moment.
A new play by Jack Thorne called The End of History was staged this summer at the Royal Court. It begins in 1997 – ‘the moment before populism completely took over’, according to the director, John Tiffany – and features a middle-aged lefty couple trying to pass their idealism on to their millennial children. Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel about the Trump era, The Topeka School, excavates end-of-millennium ‘political fantasy’: he is fascinated by the 1990s, he told the New Yorker, ‘and all the “end of history” narratives that were circulating at the time’.
Last month I took part in a conference at the University of Brighton entitled ‘After the End of History’. Scholars travelled from Brazil, Estonia and the Philippines to consider ‘where we are now; where we are heading; and where we should be heading’. Let it not be said that important questions are never asked in seminar rooms. One speaker admitted, however, that it may be too early to tell.
The rise of right-wing populism has been taken as a sign that the end of history has ended, that the stable era of liberal democracy is over; but how stable was it ever, really? Leftist critics have long pointed out that Fukuyama’s talk of an apparently neutral ‘liberal democracy’ was actually a tendentious claim for the primacy of global capitalism. Alain Badiou’s 2012 book responding to the Arab Spring was called The Rebirth of History. And populist politicians, like their pragmatic predecessors, conceal their ideological motivations behind hard hats, hi-vis jackets and down-to-earth rhetoric about ‘what works’, ‘getting the job done’ and ‘listening to ordinary voters’.
Fukuyama has himself rowed back from his original idea. Last year he argued in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment that the ‘desire for recognition’ – from al-Qaida to Black Lives Matter, from gay marriage to Brexit – destabilises the liberal order by privileging the demand for respect over mutual accommodation. Yet the splintering of class-based opposition into the claims of identity politics feels quite post-historical to me. For all the declarations that left and right are ‘obsolete’ poles, persistent economic injustice remains the most potent challenge to end-of-history flag-planting.
Fukuyama’s 1989 article contained notes of surprising melancholy. ‘The end of history will be a very sad time,’ he wrote. ‘The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’ For all the subsequent ridicule, Fukuyama’s original idea resonantly captures our era of fragmenting grand narratives and dissolving cultural movements. ‘In the post-historical period,’ he went on, ‘there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.’