How does Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis stand up thirty years later? Not so well in a world that, in John Mearsheimer’s words, “gets messier and messier.” But looking back on an argument that captured a moment and highlights persistent ways of thinking still has value. Fukuyama treats history as the progressive development of social order through the clash of ideas that ended with the unabashed triumph of economic liberalism and democracy in 1989. He argues that as conflict shaped by the struggle for recognition and ideological passion faded into the past, only “the endless solving of technological problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demand” remains to challenge us. That expansive view engages philosophical questions Graham McAleer frames well in opening the forum, but it also leaves out a lot of details that matter.
McAleer calls The End of History and the Last Man both exhilarating and stridently unfashionable in reviving the neglected subject of universal history on its publication in 1992. It retains power, he insists, “because capacious minds want to know what moves and shakes the world.” Big picture universal histories by Arnold Toynbee and Caroll Quigley met a demand from readers striving to make sense of their troubling present that faded by the 1970s as grand explanatory frameworks lost traction in academic scholarship, with Marxism as a partial exception until the 1990s. Some observers, to be sure, mourned that shift as an intellectual loss. Indeed, Fukuyama appealed to a sense of “some larger process at work, a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines” in the 1989 article for the National Interest, pitching his theory as a conceptual framework to distinguish the essential from the accidental in world history. Lacking that distinction, history or analysis could be only superficial. Where Toynbee and Quigley traced cycles of rise and fall, Fukuyama discerned a linear dialectic unfolding to produce a universal homogeneous state—“liberal insofar as it protected through a system of law man’s universal right to freedom and democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed.”
Alexander Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel gave Fukuyama the tools to explain how the Cold War’s end resolved contradictions that drove conflict through history. Those contradictions existed in the realm of consciousness, which Fukuyama tied to ideology in the broadest sense encompassing religion, culture, “and the complex of moral values underlying any society,” with the materialist bias of modern thought hiding how ideas underpinned action. Marx wrongly placed the interplay of material forces at the center of historical dialectic. Following Kojève, Fukuyama insisted that principles of liberty and equality found in the French Revolution could not be improved upon and had now vanquished Communism as the last alternative. A combination of science and reason with universal rights, Fukuyama concluded, provides the only legitimacy for social order.
Responses published in the National Interest welcomed the sweeping breadth of Fukuyama’s theorizing with the chance to discuss Hegel, but readers that focused on policy challenges related to winding down the Cold War likely saw it as more speculation than substance. Systems deduced from philosophical reflection that reason outward from first principles tend to get stuck on generalizations that fail to account for reality as it gets messier and messier. What seems profound at first glance often appears banal on closer inspection. Fukuyama looked beyond the materialist determinism of a now-discredited Marxism to impose an equally determinist and idealist template of his own.
The trouble with an abstract approach like this is that details matter for capturing nuance and coping with reality. Moreover, seeing events from multiple perspectives allows us to test our concepts. A better approach draws inductively on experience and other evidence to master relevant examples and build explanations from there. Scottish Enlightenment figures like Adam Smith, on whom McAleer draws for an alternative liberal view, grasp the point more effectively than Hegel and his epigones. Smith’s Wealth of Nations especially shows how reasoning that starts with specifics to define concepts builds a stronger explanation. Other Scottish thinkers like David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and William Robertson drew heavily on history for their conclusions on politics and social dynamics.
Fukuyama’s thesis may not have proven true, but it certainly proved useful for framing a post-Cold War order for public consumption. McAleer rightly describes it “as a fundamental contribution to the intellectual framework of globalization.” Fukuyama explained other emerging trends as part of an apparently coherent process and gave it a positive spin anticipating less sophisticated popularizers like Thomas Friedman. The fall of the Iron Curtain—and its bamboo counterpart isolating mainland China—opened hitherto isolated areas, leaving behind only a few benighted places like North Korea and Cuba. Economic policy guidelines later known as the Washington Consensus promoted open markets, privatization of state enterprises, regulatory transparency, and property rights. Developed in response to a Latin American debt crisis in the 1980s, they set a model for best practice that encouraged foreign investment as globalization integrated regions. Historically low shipping rates and labor arbitrage lengthened supply chains to drive costs down. Technology, especially the internet, seemed to have conquered distance. Friedman exuberantly declared the world to be flat after all, which meant everyone working harder and smarter or else falling behind competitors around the world.
The fact that many people in the developed world saw this as punishment rather than promise indicates the limited appeal of the new order. Few welcomed the prospect of competing for employment with workers from lower-cost regions lacking the same standards for health and safety or job security. The idea of constantly reinventing oneself over a working lifetime to meet shifting demands seems more like a treadmill from hell than healthy competition. Political interventions needed to sustain Friedman’s “flat world” distorted markets by placing native labor and local producers at a disadvantage against more distant, cheaper rivals. Meritocracy operating through an educational system that used testing as a sorting mechanism gave its beneficiaries a sense that they had earned their success and those left behind by chance deserved to lose. They found in the language of globalization a justification for pursuing their own perceived self-interest regardless of neighbors and fellow citizens. So much for the moral recognition of all human beings Kojève and Fukuyama discerned at the end of history. Friction and divisiveness followed that have become increasingly hard for inflexible and unimaginative elites to manage.
Indeed, many critics found the liberal democracy Fukuyama anticipated was neither liberal nor democratic. Democracy holds government accountable to the governed but replacing politics with technocratic management severs that link. James Burnham, and more recently Michael Lind, have traced the emergence of an administrative state while Pierre Manent argues that de-politicization undermines self-government. Liberalism increasingly emphasized what Edmund Fawcett calls “civic respect” for people and their projects that went beyond toleration to demand positive endorsement by state and society backed by law. The shift put established rights and due process in conflict with positions favored by authorities trumping others grounded in religion, established social practice, or local tradition. An increasingly therapeutic culture focused on shaping mentalities frames dissent from the authorized opinions as a psychological disorder. Ideology and culture became as contentious as allocating resources through taxes and government expenditure. Fukuyama’s vision of liberal democratic triumph missed growing conflicts over the meaning of liberal democracy and how it should operate in this new political culture of “civic respect.”
Then who captured the dynamics Fukuyama sought to explain? Robert Kaplan’s reporting on the ground in conflict regions during the 1980s and 90s stands up well. McAleer has noted elsewhere how drawing on wide reading, including literature and history from antiquity to the near present, Kaplan set events into context and kept contingency in view. Notably, the events he covered range from instability in Africa and ethnic conflict in the Balkans to developments within the United States. Kaplan’s approach to what happened engaged questions of how and why that led to broader conclusions on geopolitics and social dynamics. He and others like the late Tony Judt are attuned to the complexity and recognized fault lines that universal history with its broad sweep and determinism overlooked.
Recent decades show how issues neglected during the Cold War or seen through its imperatives have returned. Frozen conflicts began to thaw in unanticipated ways. Instead of forging a new order, globalization brought distant struggles into the heart of the developed world even as local ones emerged. In the late 1990s, regional conflicts and financial crises showed that it had not displaced geopolitics. Subsequent developments only made that lesson clearer. Indeed, today’s headlines with Russia’s war in Ukraine evoke 1914 far more than Fukuyama’s optimistic vision. History has chapters still to run.