The end of history
TIME has a list of history’s “Top 10 Failed Predictions.” Most of these are actually bad predictions – television, the internet, and the Beatles caught on, the world didn’t end in the year 2000 (or 2011), and stocks did not in fact reach a permanently high plateau in 1929. Number ten on the list, however, is a curious inclusion:
Harvard academic Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article in National Interest spawned his most famous work, published three years later. As Soviet communism collapsed and movements for freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe captured the world’s imagination, Fukuyama suggested that the time was not far off when every nation-state would become a liberal democracy. Invoking the 19th century philosopher Hegel, who thought of history as a kind of evolutionary process, Fukuyama imagined a natural “teleological” end whereby the pinnacle of human development would be in societies based on democracy and capitalism. In an era of optimism, The End of History and the Last Man won Fukuyama near instant celebrity and influenced a whole swath of prominent commentators and advocates of globalization, like “earth is flat” proponent Thomas Friedman. But history, as Fukuyama surely accepts, has not ended. The world looks no closer to being one large European Union — and with the success of decidedly undemocratic China and the rise of reactionary, extremist right-wing movements throughout the West, some argue that it’s Fukuyama’s liberal democracy whose future lies in shadow.
I’ve always thought Fukuyama’s work suffered a bit from its provocative title, leading some to misconstrue the message, but I think the TIME writer (Ishaan Tharoor) gets this one flatly wrong. I’m not sure what Tharoor means by “the world looks no closer to being one large European Union” when the European Union came into existence after Fukuyama’s publication. I’d say the world looks closer to being a European Union than it did in 1989.
I’m also unclear which reactionary, extremist right-wing movements Tharoor is referring to. Really, I’m baffled. The Tea Party? They aren’t exactly lobbying for the dismantlement of liberal democracy and capitalism, are they? I don’t think Tharoor is talking about radical Islam when talking about movements throughout the West, but it would have been a valid point if he did. Here’s Fukuyama addressing those concerns in a 2006 Washington Post column:
Democracy’s only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism. Indeed, one of the world’s most dangerous nation-states today is Iran, run by extremist Shiite mullahs. But as Peter Bergen pointed out in these pages last week, Sunni radicalism has been remarkably ineffective in actually taking control of a nation-state, due to its propensity to devour its own potential supporters. Some disenfranchised Muslims thrill to the rantings of Osama bin Laden or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the appeal of this kind of medieval Islamism is strictly limited.
And here is Fukuyama in 2001, following the September 11 attacks:
But rather than psychologize the Muslim world, it makes more sense to ask whether radical Islam constitutes a serious alternative to Western liberal democracy for Muslims themselves. (It goes without saying that, unlike communism, radical Islam has virtually no appeal in the contemporary world apart from those who are culturally Islamic to begin with.)
For Muslims themselves, political Islam has proven much more appealing in the abstract than in reality. After 23 years of rule by fundamentalist clerics, most Iranians, and in particular nearly everyone under 30, would like to live in a far more liberal society. Afghans who have experienced Taliban rule have much the same feelings. All of the anti-American hatred that has been drummed up does not translate into a viable political program for Muslim societies to follow in the years ahead.
We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic West. This does not imply a world free from conflict, nor the disappearance of culture as a distinguishing characteristic of societies. (In my original article, I noted that the posthistorical world would continue to see terrorism and wars of national liberation.)
But the struggle we face is not the clash of several distinct and equal cultures struggling amongst one another like the great powers of 19th-century Europe. The clash consists of a series of rearguard actions from societies whose traditional existence is indeed threatened by modernization. The strength of the backlash reflects the severity of this threat. But time and resources are on the side of modernity, and I see no lack of a will to prevail in the United States today.
Russia and China are both strong and not particularly liberal or democratic. Have either really sought to establish themselves as ideological alternative to the US model? Are they seducing other nations into adopting the Chinese or Russian political model? Both have at least made feigns towards democracy and have moved towards capitalism and away from autarky. A question I would like Tharoor to answer: Since the publication of The End of History and the Last Man, has the world turned more toward liberal democracy or more toward authoritarianism? Similarly, will the next 22 years trend toward liberal democracy or toward another form of government?
To the first question, here is a graph from the Freedom House, charting the course of “free,” “partly free,” and “not free” countries from 1972 to 2008:
Around 1989, the world had more “not free” countries than “free” or “partly free.” The supremacy of liberalism was hardly a foregone conclusion. The past two decades have, I believe, mostly vindicated Fukuyama’s thesis. It remains to be seen what the next two decades will bring, but if Tharoor believes that an alternate political model to liberal democracy will emerge victorious, I would like to know what it is.