Can the Last Man Restart History?


In one of those ironies of which history seems so fond, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man celebrates its thirtieth anniversary just as war in Europe adds to the list of events which seem to invalidate its thesis. Like The Great Gatsby and the roaring twenties, or The Bonfire of the Vanities and the go-go eighties, Fukuyama’s work, perhaps the only book on the philosophy of history to achieve breakout into the popular consciousness, stands as a symbol of the hubris of its age, when post-Cold War Western liberalism seemed poised to dominate the world.

Always controversial, the book, extending the thesis outlined in an earlier article, was based on the thought of the nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel who had seen History (with a capital “H”) as a process whereby the Weltgeist or “World Spirit” comes to know itself. This implies that History is teleological – it has a potential end point when the spirit has completed its development and become totally self-aware. This does not mean that history (with a small “h”) will stop. Events will still continue to occur, but the overall process of development will have come to an end.

Fukuyama’s contribution was to add the notion of thumos to the debate. A term he took from Homer, it means the desire for recognition, which he saw as a key human motivation. The lesson he took from the end of the Cold War was that liberal democracy had proven itself to be the most effective method of servicing the thumos of the greatest number. Whereas previous systems such as monarchy had been very good at catering to the desire for recognition of those at the very top, it had not spread its benefits to the rest of the population. Totalitarian communism had, in practice, suffered the same flaw and that was why the West had won. History was at an end because, by developing a political system whereby the entire population had the opportunity to satisfy its thumos, the Weltgeist had completed its process of development. There could be no better way of achieving this and so could be no further History.

Even in the heady days of the early nineties, when democracy had kicked ass and taken names, baby, Fukuyama’s thesis received severe pushback. Some was due to a misunderstanding of his distinction between “History” and “history” but events seemed to conspire against him. The attacks on 9/11 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism seemed to argue that there were other forms of political organisation which some people found more attractive than Western Liberal democracy. The battle of ideas was not over.

Rather, the events of the 2000’s seemed to validate the ideas of another American thinker, Samuel Huntington whose The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order was published a few years after Fukuyama’s work. Huntington foresaw a world split into civilisational blocks each of which followed their own approach to political organisation and culture. These groupings would compete, and, in the border zones between them, possibly fight.

At first glance, the current war in Ukraine would seem to be classically Huntingtonian. Ukraine, whose name literally means “borderland” in Slavic, lies between two civilisations, Western Europe and Russia, and, indeed, is internally split between a Europhile West and a Russophile East. If anywhere is going to see a war on Huntington’s terms, it is likely to be Ukraine. Yet, a look at the countries supporting Russia suggests that there is more than just a war of civilisations going on. Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Vietnam may be many things, but they are not part of the Russian “civilisation” however one may define it. Even the UAE found itself unable to support a U.N. motion calling on Russia to halt its campaign. The list of Russian supporters is less suggestive of a war between civilisations, more of a war of ideologies, pitting liberals against authoritarians.

Even if Huntington is not exactly right, such an ideological conflict must surely still suggest that Fukuyama was wrong. Liberal democracy has not cleared the field of its enemies. A similar point is frequently made regarding the rise of China. Its model of authoritarian “state capitalism” seems to run counter to the triumph of liberal democracy, but Fukuyama argues that it is too early to draw such a conclusion. We do not yet know if it is a superior model, merely that it has been successful so far. It may well have flaws which become apparent over time. Given the high levels of indebtedness in the economy, it is entirely possible that China’s rapid pace of growth meets an unpleasant end, with unknown consequences for its political system.

History can stop in the sense of the optimum political system being discovered before everyone adopts it. While other approaches may continue, they will not, in the long run, be able to outcompete it. The authoritarian tendency might be the geopolitical equivalent of the Japanese soldiers who fought on in the jungle after the end of WWII. They had already lost, they just did not realise it.  Certainly, and with caveats about propaganda and the fog of war, the differing morale of the two sides suggests that a reasonably liberal, reasonably democratic country seems more able to harness the energy of its people than an authoritarian state relying on conscription. A complete Russian victory might pose problems for Fukuyama’s ideas, a Ukrainian one might seem to validate them.

That would not, however, be an unalloyed blessing, for his view of liberal democracy was nuanced. While it served to produce the greatest satisfaction of thumos for the greatest number, it also served to limit the acclaim available to any individual and some people, those who suffer from megalothymia – an outsized desire for recognition – will ultimately find it unsatisfying as it prevents them from achieving their desires. In an act of spectacular prescience, he singled out Donal Trump, then just a loud-mouthed New York property owner as an example of those for whom the rewards of such a society would prove inadequate.

Even in less extreme cases, a society which limits the amount of recognition available rapidly becomes stagnant. As he says, “ It would have little art or literature, music or intellectual life. It would be incompetently governed, for few people of quality would choose a life of public service. It would not have much in the way of economic dynamism; its crafts and industries would be pedestrian and unchanging; its technology second rate.”

Fukuyama has said that, rather than valorising a specifically American conception of democracy, the society which best fits the “End of History” thesis is the E.U. European politics is reasonably non-ideological, with democracy, liberalism and the role of the E.U. being taken as axiomatic across the member states. It is also hard to think of any important work of European culture over the past two decades (with the possible exception of the novels of Michel Houellebecq who spends his time railing about how awful life in Europe is). It is hard to think of any European statesman of recent times who ranks in the pantheon of great leaders (Frau Merkel’s reputation over the past week having performed roughly as well as the Russian stock market). The European economy is famously debt-ridden and slow growing while the internet revolution (with the Scandinavian exceptions of Angry Birds and Spotify) has passed the continent by. Europe may not believe that History has ended, but it behaves as though it has. It is “The Last Man”.

How does such a society deal with the arrival of a hostile force on its borders? On the evidence of the weekend, reasonably well. The E.U. has announced the shipment of weapons to Ukraine and Germany has decided to meet its NATO obligations and spend 2% of GDP on defence.

Fukuyama, however, would urge caution. A society at the end of history would “be unable to deal with civilisations that were infused with a greater sense of megalothymia, whose citizens were ready to forsake comfort and safety and were not afraid to risk their lives for dominion.” For Europe has two problems to solve before it can be said to be “back”.

Firstly, the current state of European militaries is woeful. The head of the Bundeswehr said last week that the army is “standing there more or less empty handed”. Years of underinvestment require years of overinvestment to catch up. That means the current sense of urgency must be maintained even as the crisis drifts from the front pages and other concerns attract political attention. The populace needs to consent to years of higher taxes and diminished standards of living for a concern which may come to seem less pressing.

Secondly, no matter how much kit one purchases, one still needs people to use it. But in societies which have “moved on” from war, the profession of arms no longer bears much status. Serving in the military does not satisfy thumos because current European policies do not offer the opportunity to earn glory.

Whether Europe can sustain its new-found martial vigour may well depend on the outcome in Ukraine. A complete defeat of Russia will probably see it fade away – democracy will, after all, have won again. A complete Russian victory would have the opposite effect. The philosopher Leo Strauss, whose disciples did so much to prosecute the War on Terror, extolled the value of an external threat in promoting social cohesion. A Europe with Russian tanks on its border, might well find the discipline to re-arm, and would probably begin once more to prize those serving on the front line.

An intermediate outcome, where Ukraine was partitioned or conquered but immediately beset by an insurgency might once again lead to back-sliding. Not only would the conflict fall off the front pages, it would also open up a possibility Fukuyama explicitly foresaw. He argued that for some, the need for struggle will always manifest itself in a need to prove themselves in battle and when society does not provide it, they will seek it where they can. Predicting the rise of foreign fighters in places such as Syria, he wrote, “it is probably healthy for liberal democracies that the Third World exists to absorb the energies and ambitions of such people; whether it is good for the Third World is another matter.” With Ukraine announcing the creation of a “Foreign Legion” and governments such as the U.K’s indicating they will not stand in the way of citizens who wish to fight, it may be the case that those whom society wishes to recruit for defensive armies prefer to go abroad to experience combat.

There is an example of a “post-historical” society jolted from its complacency. The arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships” off Japan in 1853 sparked a series of radical shifts in the country. Wracked by centuries of internecine conflict where clan fought clan for supremacy, the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 saw the country decide that it had experienced quite enough history, settling into two centuries of moribund peace. Realising that the rest of the world had developed substantially in the intervening period, and perhaps did not have Japan’s best interests at heart, the country embarked, under the Emperor Meiji, on a period of rapid modernisation, culminating in its 1905 victory over Russia in the Battle of Tsushima, the first in history fought between fleets composed exclusively of steel ships.

Modern Europe is, however, not Meiji Japan. The latter was an executive monarchy, the latter, if not particularly democratic at the level of the E.U., is comprised of democracies. The policies pursued by, say, France, will differ if Emmanuel Macron or Eric Zemmour is in the Elysee. Japan still prized martial valour, with the Samurai having an honoured place near the top of the caste system.

More importantly, Europe’s economic position is different. The End of History’s predecessor as the history book everybody bought and nobody read was Paul Kennedy’s door stopper The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in which he showed that rising political and military power flows from rising economic power. “The rise of any one Great Power in this period has been the consequence of…the way in which that state’s economy had been rising or falling relative to the other leading nations in the decades preceding.” Rising economies allow nations to devote resources to the military, whereas nations in economic decline find it harder to prioritise between spending on “guns, butter and investments”. With ageing populations requiring more welfare spending, high and increasing debt servicing costs and a declining share of global GDP, making Europe more militarily powerful will be a feat unparalleled in history and, as any investor will tell you, the most dangerous words in economics are, “This time it’s different.”

While much of the reaction to the weekend’s news has been a variant of “There is more joy in heaven over a sinner that repenteth…”, we should be careful lest we prove Hegel’s dictum, “We learn from History that we do not learn from History.”

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.

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