The End of 2020 and the End of History
There are plenty of unpleasant things that ought to be left behind in that nightmare of a year. God willing, Fukuyama will be one of them.
Among America’s excuse for an elite, each intellectual in-group has its big-brain shibboleths by which initiates and aspirants signal their transcendence over the mental failings and fixations of the unenlightened normals. For philosophically inclined politicos on the younger end of the spectrum, one of the fixtures is a troubled intonation of “Fukuyama is so misunderstood.”
I recall once, at the high sacrament of D.C.’s under-30 set (Sunday brunch), a realignment type—who, in all fairness, is probably much smarter than I am—reciting the formula faithfully while other young sages of the post-Trump right nodded in dispassionate agreement. It was a kind of instinct, akin to the social reflex to credit Marx’s supposed genius, Lincoln’s supposed competence, Biden’s supposed likability. These are (we are told) mere facts of life no matter where you fall: agree or disagree on the finer points, but all respectable people must admit that the architect of communism was a remarkable mind, the archetype of the modern president was a beautiful soul, the crooked pol from Delaware is a real good guy, and the theoretician of the end of history offers some deep and abiding insight that we all seem to have missed.
For the life of me, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what is so misunderstood. Fukuyama’s entire philosophical project is incredibly straightforward, incredibly wrong, and incredibly unoriginal. It’s essentially a roundabout attempt to say, over many thousands of words and a handful of decades, that Hegel was right about the progression of History. (Spoiler: he was not.) It is the latest—and it will not be the last—in a very long line of attempts to formulate a linear theory of history with a clear and glorious endpoint. For Marx, History would end in communism; for Fukuyama, it already had ended in the neoconservatives’ universalist conception of Western liberal democracy. No need to immanentize the eschaton, guys. It’s already here.
It may be a bit reductive to call the “end of history” thesis a post hoc justification of the neocon agenda—Fukuyama has even distanced himself from neoconservatism altogether in recent years—but not nearly so reductive as to cancel out the point. So: the “end of history” thesis is pretty much just a post hoc justification of the neocon agenda. It only makes sense that, as neoconservatism itself crumbles before our eyes, its grand historical-philosophical distillation should likewise fall apart.
This may (like Fukuyama’s own predictions) seem more than a tad overconfident. The end of the end of history has been declared a dozen times since Fukuyama first presented his claims in The National Interest in the summer of 1989. When it became apparent that China was not democratizing—Fukuyama was wrapping up the initial essay just as the CCP massacred its own citizens at Tiananmen Square—many questioned the assumed trajectory of all major powers toward a homogeneous global liberalism. When the Bush administration’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East collapsed—by which point Fukuyama, initially supportive, had come to think better of them—it seemed far from certain that liberal democracy would continue to take hold across the world. As wars raged on and powers clashed, the idea of geopolitical stasis in the wake of the Cold War lost any grounding in reality. Domestically too, Fukuyama himself began to qualify the thesis as identity politics mounted an existential threat to the liberal-democratic order. Outbursts left and right—from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party—threatened the survival of a political consensus that Fukuyama said was here to stay.
Through all these trials, though, Fukuyama’s thought has held sway over the best and brightest of America’s political thinkers. Even the non-neocons are obliged by some latent social contract to admit that he had a point, with many focusing on the ounce of nostalgia he retained for history’s dramatic struggles (or his eventual realization that the neocons’ Mideast wars had been misguided). Those who would be skeptics are willing to get on board with the diagnosis as long as they can hold to the judgment that the end of history is not an unmitigated good; thus the general worldview comes to dominate across the board. But 2020, at long last, should have delivered the final blow to the Fukuyama brainworm.
Some of the biggest reasons for this come from China. Fukuyama, after all, is a scholar of international affairs, and the argument has always been primarily geopolitical. The central premise that all major powers will trend toward liberal democracy—discounting aberrations in bit players like Albania and Burkina Faso—has failed to bear out ever since the initial publication, but the crystallization of China’s renewed illiberal doctrine, together with Xi Jinping’s efforts this year to expand his nation’s influence on the world stage, ought to be the final nail in Fukuyama’s coffin. There is no more waiting to see, no more bated breath in anticipation of Beijing’s liberalization. It isn’t coming.
Nor are the rumblings of history coming only from across the Pacific. In the waning days of Donald Trump’s first term, the rhetoric of key players like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has veered increasingly into “Cold War” territory, with many American apparatchiks at least as eager as their transoceanic counterparts for a low-grade clash of civilizations. One needn’t be eager for a new Cold War, however, to recognize that the mere prospect of one goes a long way toward discounting history’s supposed end.
Fukuyama did make some allowances for this, speculating that the prospect of a peaceful world order might inspire new conflicts simply as a means to derive social meaning. But the conceit falls short because it fails to appreciate the real substance of such continuing conflicts. The core belief of the Fukuyamist is that Western liberal democracy—a la the European Union and the U.S. mono-party—cannot be improved on, cannot be beaten. There are no real contenders anymore, only aberrations. The rise of an Eastern superpower that is neither communist nor neoliberal will push that theory to the breaking point. That there is a rise at all—that a new national (perhaps even supranational) system substantially opposed to Fukuyama’s global vision is able to swell up in the first place—suggests that history has roads yet left to travel.
The end of history has domestic problems too, and these may prove fatal well before any inter-civilizational conflict kills the neocon utopia. The defining issue of 2020 was the global pandemic caused by the Chinese coronavirus. While the event of the pandemic itself is of course not a point against Fukuyama, the way it played out strikes at the core of his assumptions. Draconian lockdowns left the citizens of his liberal-democratic utopia wondering whether their governments were either liberal or democratic in any meaningful sense. Faced with a historical event, the markets he had championed for decades proved inhospitable to the great majority of people. Under pressure, the post-historical world began to crack.
Then came the election. The neocon vision—a world order of American-style democracies—hinges on the hope that American-style democracy… works. If the archetype of the form (though Fukuyama, an alumnus of the Reagan administration, has since downplayed the role of the U.S. as his model for good government) begins to falter, the project falls apart. If history—not just the sequence of events but the turnover of epochs, the potential for real, tectonic change—returns to America, it must return to the world at large (in keeping with the traditional sequence of neoconservative thought).
Joe Biden is a politician for the end of history: a lifeless creature of the vaguely liberal-democratic establishment, invested in global hegemony and opposed to any semblance of historical return. Fukuyamists will sleep easy on inauguration night, secure in the knowledge that history’s treadmill is running smoothly, that the last year—the last four years—was just a blip on the radar and we are not going anywhere. They will, of course, be wrong.
The past year was, more than anything else, the end of an era—or rather, the beginning of the end of one. The end-of-history system barely made it through 2020, and it did not make it out unscathed. Any one of the injuries it sustained could prove fatal: the destruction of domestic faith in American democracy, the ravaging of the markets by the Chinese virus, the calculated ascendance of China’s far from post-historical regime. One way or another, the world is about to move again.
History hasn’t been over since 1989—it had just gone to sleep. It woke up in 2020, and we should do the same in ’21.