After the End of History

Eliane Glaser

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.’


  • 8 October 2019 at 10:33pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I agree with Elaine Glaser that there’s little sense (or intellectual integrity) in beating up on Fukuyama because his crystal ball was cloudy to begin with. He seemed to have been carried away by the fall of communism in Europe, without paying attention to what it meant in China (or Cuba, at the time). USSR-style communism is dead (or dormant), but socialism in thought and deed continues to flourish, though it’s fighting an uphill battle at the moment. Of course, his other big error was that the newly established form(s) of ‘liberal-democratic’ polities that accepted global capitalism as inevitable and/or necessary would be: (1) effective in solving all human problems (ignoring environmental deterioration as somehow ‘marginal’ or solvable by capitalism – a big mistake), and (2) acceptable to various nations and societies around the world (it’s obviously not, and extreme dissatisfaction, inflected by either strong left- or right-wing ideas, leads to the kind of turmoil that is often the main subject of history). I have no idea how his ideas about such things as techno-utopianism or the related drive to achieve human immortality through some combination of genetic engineering, robotics, and AI prompted him to take this terminal view of actual history. It would be nice to hear his ideas about such matters today. Missing the prospect of immense upheavals on account of climate change seems like a pretty big blunder (there was enough information available at the time to at least investigate the probabilities and possibilities, but he didn’t). History is still being made, and it is difficult to imagine conditions in which that will not continue to happen. As an old gaffer I’m happy to know that history won’t have ended when my own demise occurs (though I’ll have no stake in the matter after that).

    • 14 October 2019 at 7:49am
      FoolCount says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I disagree. One can never "beat up on Fukuyama" enough. And the bugger deserves all the beating and then some. Just because it was immediately obvious that he was wrong, should not exempt him from paying the price for siding with evil. Making an example of him should also serve as a warning to future aspiring sycophants that there is a cost to being so servile. Even if that cost is just being constantly reminded what a fool you are.

  • 8 October 2019 at 10:47pm
    hag says:
    "I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed."
    Ouch. He didn't see brexit coming either, did he.
    Right now, I am experiencing a powerful nostalgia for the nineties, when we lived in boring times, mobile phones were getting smaller, the information superhighway was a thing (that had too few on-ramps), and the planet had a future.

  • 9 October 2019 at 9:53pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    Fukuyama's "original idea"?

    "As Fukuyama stated explicitly in “The End of History?,” he was adopting an interpretation of Hegel made in the nineteen-thirties by a semi-obscure intellectual adventurer named Alexandre Kojève." More at (a review article on Fukuyama's 'Identity' book and its background)

    • 11 October 2019 at 12:39pm
      JamesBaldwin says: @ Neil Foxlee
      I know you're being lighthearted, but just want to point out that thinking that "the planet had a future" in the 90s is exactly the reason why it doesn't have a future now. More than half of total CO2 emissions have happened since 1988, when the IPCC was established. The 90s is when we could have done something about it - the science was established, global leaders all knew about it, China and India were in the early stages of their economic rise, renewable technology already existed.

  • 11 October 2019 at 12:27pm
    JamesBaldwin says:
    Obviously Fukuyama was wrong but as someone who came of age in the 90s I think his idea captures the mood of the age perfectly. That's what it felt like - the end of history - obviously stuff still happened but the basic framework for human society seemed, for all its flaws, fixed. Even the big struggles of the period - Yugoslavia, Palestine, jihadism - seemed to arise from the fact that some countries didn't fit into this framework *yet*.

    When I was doing a PhD in history in the 00s I went through a deep crisis when I couldn't make any progress, became disenchanted, and considered dropping out. Of course this is a very common grad student experience. But the particular form my crisis took was formed by the end of history atmosphere. I became convinced of the pointlessness of it: I didn't doubt the intrinsic interest of history, or the rigour of the discipline of history, but it just seemed disconnected from my life and wider society. I knew how to draw links between my research on early modern Islam and contemporary concerns, to pass my dissertation proposal & apply for funding, but I was no longer convinced by it myself. Looking back from today, these doubts seem preposterous, as do the pompous certainties that we still hear pronounced on Radio 4. Everything is up for grabs.

    I also wonder whether this end of history atmosphere had a wider impact on my generation - those on the border between gen X and millennials. I think it's striking that while this generation has produced many capable technocrats, it hasn't had much to say in response to our current crises that's original. Many radical movements are led by elderly people - Corbyn, Bernie, Melenchon - and a lot of interesting ideas are coming from younger millennials, who reached adulthood around the financial crisis (everyone should read the recent books by Grace Blakeley and Aaron Bastani!) But the contribution of the 70s/early-80s cohort is represented by Macron or Beto - slick and shiny but essentially vapid.

    Maybe I'm thinking about this too much and just trying to find an excuse for joining the Liberal Democrats in my 20s.

    • 14 October 2019 at 11:28am
      hag says: @ JamesBaldwin
      " the contribution of the 70s/early-80s cohort is represented by Macron or Beto - slick and shiny but essentially vapid"
      Reminds me of Pynchon's underrated 'Vineland', in which the 80s kids are much more conservative and materialistic than their hippy parents.
      I'm feeling kinda guilty for hoping that the millennial generation will save the planet, where gen X failed miserably, apparently; apart from presenting to their kids the model to reject.

  • 11 October 2019 at 5:42pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    The idea of the ‘end of history’ has a much deeper history itself. Medieval Christians participated in movements that believed in an eschatology about the end-times being just around the corner, as it were (Norman Cohn’s book The Pursuit of the Millennium covered this ground). Well, people might say, that’s just your usual bunch of religious fanatics. But they had their secular counterparts during later phases of European history (and, I imagine, elsewhere in the Middle East and Orient). Marx was in his own way an ‘end of history man’, with the process of dialectical materialism (and its accompanying political developments) finally yielding some kind of static utopian condition all over the globe. There were always countervailing intellectual trends, manifested by the writing of historians who believed in endlessly repeating cycles of development (in antiquity Polybius advanced such a theory to explain what had happened in the Greek world during the past few centuries and what was likely to happen in the Roman world). Instead of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Polybius’s scheme was more like action(condition)-reaction-overreaction-downfall, start all over again, with no end of this kind of cycle in sight since it presumably reflected both basic human nature and how societies are bound to develop, mature, then crash. And, there are alternative grand schemes of history that do not propose an end-point where all human problems are resolved.

    • 15 October 2019 at 12:34am
      FoolCount says: @ Timothy Rogers
      That is rather absurd to categorise together the doomsday cults, Marx and Fukuyama only because they all used the words "end" and "history" to describe their beliefs. They literally have nothing in common. In particular, Marx and Fukuyama could not be more different. Marxian utopia was (and remains 170 years later) a revolutionary vision militating against the status quo. Fukuyama's screed was a totally reactionary apology for the status quo, with a shelf life of a bruised banana. It is hard to believe that stupidity of his own thesis did not occur to Fukuyama even as he was writing it down, but he went with it anyway. What a tool.

    • 19 October 2019 at 6:24pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ FoolCount
      It's not as absurd as FoolCount thinks. The point of the comparison is that Marx postulated a utopian end-point of history as mankind knew up until the establishment of world-wide communism. Lenin, not accepting the length of time required to make this 'inevitably' happen, thought the process could be accelerated through the efforts of a dedicated elite (a revolutionary party), and in the case of Russia during his last years, that this would also require a good deal of violence (which would be justified by its results). Stalin took another step, postulating that as a state approached the actual achievement of communism, it would meet more violent resistance, which it had to overcome through its own extreme violence. (sounds pretty apocalyptic to me). Achieving the utopian vision required a good deal of target violence. If you look at the behavior and policies of the USSR's leadership (and that of its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe) during its declining decades, it's obvious that maintaining the status q

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