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Yearning For History


35 years ago a relatively unknown bureaucrat from the US State Department published a bold essay titled “The End of History?” Looking at the collapsing communist world, Francis Fukuyama declared that great ideological debates were over: liberal democracy had won. After the vanguard of communism - the Soviet Union - stopped believing and collapsed no serious intellectual thought communism was an ideological competitor anymore. Across the world and in the realm of ideas liberal democracy was ascendant, uncontested even.

Of course looking back this was a local high for liberal democracy. Today, The End of History is primarily invoked to mock the overconfidence of the times then. But in rereading the essay and its accompanying book I was struck by how much more thoughtful it was than the tropes would lead one to think. The book is many things, but it is not as simple as its detractors believe and its argument remains salient even today. Perhaps most importantly for me, reading The End of History reminded me of how lacking our time is of positive, universal visions for the future, and made me yearn for their resurgence.

To understand why I will briefly recap the core argument of Fukuyama’s thesis, before offering my reflection and why I yearn for History.

A theory of History

Underlying The End of History is a theory of human nature that allows us to reason about history and political ideologies. That theory is from Kojeve, who himself was relying on Hegel. According to Kojeve’s reading of Hegel humans at their core desire the recognition of others. We want to be recognized; to be seen and acknowledged as people endowed with dignity and equal to others. Humans have other desires too, like for self-preservation, but in some sense this desire for recognition is the most important for us today because it affects politics the most.

However, this recognition has not been freely given. Instead it has been won over time through struggle. That struggle has been the core driver of a rational historical progress: over time people developed more consciousness of themselves as moral agents worthy of recognition and demanded this recognition, thereby driving political and social change. The ultimate culmination of this - the ideological zenith for humanity - is liberal democracy. That is because liberal democracy uniquely addresses the intrinsic human yearning for recognition by affording individuals dignity through equality under the law and some form of democratic accountability.

Thus, capital H History in the Hegelian sense means the ideological development of mankind over time - particularly towards liberal democracy. Moreover, it carries with it an aspect of rationality, the sense that History follows a process that makes sense, that we can understand, and even predict if we properly understand the nature of humans.

In the 19th century Hegel could believe that history had ended because liberal democracy had emerged in France and later Prussia. But this theory was contested, particularly by the ideological alternatives of fascism and communism. Fascism was thoroughly discredited and defeated after WW2. Then, decades later, communism largely collapsed from its internal contradictions. At that point the only remaining political ideology with widespread legitimacy was liberal democracy.

Therein lies the source of the claim that “History has ended.” The claim is not that events would stop. Instead the claim is that liberalism had won out over its rivals in the realm of ideas. At the end of the 20th century its chief ideological competitors - fascism and communism - were thoroughly discredited. It was The End of History because, by the late 20th century, liberalism remained the only political system with legitimacy. Seen in this light, the thesis was true at the time it was published, though it had detractors even then.

Seeing Fault Lines in History

The End of History spends ample time on the parts of human nature which might lead to liberalism’s downfall. Paradoxically, these potential fatal flaws derive from the same desire that propels liberalism inexorably forward: our desire for recognition.

Fukuyama identifies two core desires that can lead to the downfall. These are the dual desires of wanting to be recognized as equal to others (”isothymia”), and wanting to be recognized as greater than others (”megalothymia”). The former desire, isothymia, underlies much of modern identity politics, which is at its heart a desire for recognition of the dignity of marginalized groups coupled with an addressing of social conditions. Although this is the source of much progress, it can also lead to a fragmentation of society, where cohesion is undermined by the division of society into ever smaller identity-based groups. Moreover, an excessive focus on equal recognition can lead to a society where any form of excellence or distinction is viewed with suspicion or resentment. In such a society, the pursuit of excellence might be discouraged, and mediocrity could become the norm, thus stifling creativity, innovation, and progress.

Relatedly, megalothymia is the force that propels some people to want to be recognized as superior. Many of the great conquerors, statesmen, and entrepreneurs of the past have been driven by this desire. And today we have our own would-be Caesars - those who seek recognition of their superiority so much that they bend and centralize political systems to reflect that. In turn, they could destroy the freedom and equality that makes liberal democracy what it is. At the same time, we don't want to stifle megalothymia entirely - as stated above the pursuit of excellence, and more generally ambition, are powerful drivers of creativity and progress. How can we allow for this drive while preventing the rise of Caesars? One of the answers in modern life has been to prevent the rise of Caesars by channeling megalothymia into business instead. There the ambitious can create their own kingdoms and claim superiority over others so long as they are contained to markets and safely separated from politics.

Is this enough for the most ambitious among us? At the time it was written Fukuyama questioned whether this was a sustainable solution. One of the amusing anecdotes of the book is the mention of Donald Trump as an example of someone who, rather than seek political recognition, pursued recognition in business. Obviously that didn't work. Trump did not stay in business, but instead became president and continues to seek recognition even now. It seems that megalothymia cannot be so easily contained. It, and isothymia, will continue to threaten liberalism from within. These are the potential fault lines in The End of History that Fukuyama saw.

With the benefit of hindsight we can point to another way that liberalism might threaten itself: the decaying of political order. Since the publication of The End of History liberal democratic political systems have become shockingly less functional, so much so that they are now in crisis on a scale that didn't seem to be a possibility when Fukuyama published. As examples, bureaucracies have grown more sclerotic and citizens have lost a lot of faith in them. This decay is another way that liberal democracy could falter - not so much torn asunder by a megalo- or isothymic force, but rather slowly rotting from within.

Yearning For History

Still, The End of History could end on a hopeful note. Liberal democracy had beat its competitors. The rot of its institutions had not yet reared its head and the forces of isothymia and megalothymia seemed to be manageable. The world was on course to converge on a shared set of values and ideals, driven by a process shared by us all: the human desire for recognition. It was not only possible but perhaps even popular to hold grand, universal beliefs about humans and their future.

In an age of extreme cultural and moral relativism, there is a charisma to that universality characteristic of the End of History. It asserts not that we are islands unto ourselves - as the spirit of our times would have us believe - but that everyone shares a common humanity regardless of who you are, what your background is, or what your culture is. Everyone has similar fundamental needs and desires; everyone yearns for recognition and is deserving of dignity and freedom. For all its flaws and limitations, the idea of universal human experiences, and politics derived from that universality, still retains a deep gravitational pull for me.

Moreover, nearly 4 decades later the contrast between the optimism of The End of History and today is striking. Whatever you think of Fukuyama's thesis, it is hard to deny that it was a hopeful one. It certainly had its critics, but this optimistic vision captured the imagination of many. In today's zeitgeist, optimistic visions for the future are vanishingly rare. We all sense the decay and dysfunction of our institutions. Pessimism is overwhelming, and that matters because hopeful visions are powerful. They give us direction, goals, motivation, and a way of orienting ourselves. Even if the present falls short, we can still imagine a better world. And they help us coordinate. Without hope we are adrift, lacking the north star to guide us forward - making it all the more difficult to manifest a better future.

Futher, after reading The End of History, much of today's discourse feels small, siloed, and presentist - focused on putting out daily fires, scoring partisan points, or advancing narrow agendas. Of course there are always pressing problems or things to address. But as we do so, we also desperately need to recapture our capacity for the grand - to dream of where we want to go as a species, not just stemming decline or fighting the issue of the week.

In conclusion, rereading The End of History is a bittersweet experience. On one hand, it is a poignant reminder of a more optimistic time. On the other hand, it throws into sharp relief the cynicism, division, and small-mindedness that characterize so much of our current time. For all its shortcomings and oversimplifications, many of which I declined to review here, there remains something deeply compelling about The End of History’s hopeful and universal vision. We would do well to recapture that spirit. We cannot ignore what has transpired since, but we can continue to dare to dream as Fukuyama once did.