Did History return with a vengeance on 9-11? Or was that just history — that is to say: stuff happening? And are the rise of Western leaders like Victor Orban and Donald Trump, and the vote for Brexit, further evidence that History has taken a new turn? Or are they also just stuff happening?

The question is prompted by a piece Paul Sagar has at Aeon that is well worth reading, about how Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument has been misunderstood and mis-recalled. As Sagar reminds us, Fukuyama didn’t think the “end of history” meant the end of stuff happening — it just meant that we had arrived at the point where there were no more plausible fundamental political debates:

Fukuyama jettisoned Hegel’s implausible metaphysics, as well as Marx’s idea of ‘dialectical materialism’, as the proposed motor of historical synthesis. In their place, he suggested that the modern scientific method coupled with technological advancement, alongside market capitalism as a form of mass information-processing for the allocation of resources, could explain how humanity had successfully managed to develop – haltingly, but definitely – on an upward course of civilisational progress. The catch, however, was that we had now gone as far as it was possible to go. Liberal democratic capitalism was the final stage of Historical synthesis: no less inherently contradictory form of society was possible. So, while liberal democracy was by no means perfect, it was the best we were going to get. Big-H history was over, and we were now living in post-History. That was what Fukuyama meant by his infamous claim that History had ‘ended’.

To be sure, many critics see Fukuyama’s theory as no more plausible than Hegel’s metaphysics or Marx’s materialism. And his claim that Western liberal democratic capitalism represented the necessary end point of the grand Historical working-out of human existence – such that no society more desirable than the US of the 1990s was possible – strikes many as no more likely than Hegel’s notorious claim that the end of History was the 19th-century Prussian state (which just happened to pay his salary).

But whether Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelianism is plausible is not the most interesting aspect of his thesis. For throughout his analysis, Fukuyama insisted on the centrality of thymos (the Greek for ‘spiritedness’), or recognition, to human psychology: what Thomas Hobbes called pride, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau labelled amour propre. This denotes the need to be liked and respected by other people, and to have that recognition outwardly affirmed – if necessary, extracting it by force. Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.

It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy – could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions – it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that.

Indeed, even if all people wanted was equal respect and recognition, there would be the potential for conflict, because a rationalist, capitalist, meritocratic order, even if it is properly designed and executed, and doesn’t become corrupted, will give outsized rewards to those deemed deserving by its lights, which will inevitably be understood by those denied those rewards as proof that they are not being granted equal respect at all.

But it’s worse than that:

[H]uman beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn vicious, finding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.

What was remarkable about liberal capitalist democracy, Fukuyama thought, was that it had managed to put a lid on the more destructive expressions of megalothymia, encouraging citizens to direct such energies into socially harmless expressions, such as mountaineering or competitive sports. Which might sound like a pleasant conclusion. Except, Fukuyama thought, that a sanguine response failed to see the hidden dangers lurking in the end of History.

The second half of Fukuyama’s title, The Last Man, was a direct reference to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that, although modern society with its emphasis on truth and transparency had ‘killed God’ (the future of Western politics was egalitarian and secular), it had nothing to replace Him with. The vast majority of modern human beings would now be small-minded, stunted, pathetic creatures, possessing no sense of how to achieve greatness, only of how to accrue petty comforts and easy pleasures in a materialistic, self-obsessed world. In other words, if megalothymia went out of human life, so would greatness. Only base mediocrity would remain.

Fukuyama combined Nietzsche’s idea of the last man with his own diagnosis of underlying human psychology. His prognosis was that the outlook for post-History Western society was not good. It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun (this was what Kojève predicted). But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed. (Sound familiar?)

Fukuyama predicted that such restlessness and resentment would eventually need a political outlet – and when it came, it would be explosive. The anti-capitalist Left, however, was a busted flush. Communism was now a known fraud and failure, and post-Historical people driven by megalothymia would have no truck with its egalitarian pretensions, or its nakedly tyrannical realities. Far more threatening to the stability of liberal capitalist societies would be the emergence of demagogic strongmen from the fascistic Right, cynically feeding narrow self-interest and popular discontent, preying on human impulses for mastery and domination that the hollow comforts of consumer capitalism could not hope to appease.

This is where one might be inclined to cue Rod Dreher and say that part of what Christianity is “for” is providing a God that directs megalothymia properly by providing a meaning to action that is grounded somewhere other than a restless self. Except that Nietzsche hated Christianity, which he saw as a religion of slavery, precisely because it inverted natural and obvious value hierarchies, saying that the meek shall inherit the earth and that one should turn the other cheek and so forth. Greatness in Christianity is the greatness of sainthood, which begins with a radical emptying out of self, which might be precisely what those inclined to extreme demands for dominance need, but is hardly going to satisfy what they want. And the history (or is it History?) of the middle ages was mostly the history of sundry warlords grasping for greater dominance, and the best idea the Church had for channeling this kind of behavior into something less locally destructive was to launch the Crusades.

But I’m still curious how, from Fukuyama’s (or Kojève’s) perspective, one is to distinguish history from History. Is political Islam an Idea with a capital “I”? Is the resurgence of nationalism? Or are these atavistic eruptions of discontent against an order that really is the best we can come up with, and that therefore will never really be replaced? If the medieval Christian order featured a lot of on-the-ground disorder, then this is just what life at the end of History looks like: the liberal capitalist order persists because we can’t really imagine an alternative, but persistence doesn’t preclude continuous conflict. On the other hand, perhaps Ibn Khaldun had some useful insights about how history works as well as Hegel.

Ultimately, I don’t think Marx’s emphasis on the material substrate can be so easily cast off. The ructions we’re seeing now in the West cannot be divorced from the demographic expansion of Africa and the Middle East, nor can they be divorced from the economic rise of China and the consequent dramatic drop in the bargaining position of labor in relation to international capital, nor can they be divorced from the impact of the Internet on the distribution of wealth and information. I worry that the next phase of automation will kick these trends into even higher gear, and will finally put the material basis of the liberal capitalist order into fundamental question.

In any event, please do read Sagar’s piece, and read it all the way to the end, because he saves his most amusing revelation for the last paragraph.