Why Fukuyama has always been right
The struggle to replace “tribal” politics with a more impersonal form of political relationships continues in the twenty-first century.
-Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order
The midwit take on Fukuyama is that he predicted some sort of liberal utopia following the end of the Cold War, and that every rewind into the violent tribalism that characterizes the capital ‘H’ History of his famous book represents a refutation of both this thesis and him as a thinker. Such people didn’t read past the title, much less the almost forty chapters of re-interpreted Hegel. It’s an admittedly dense book by pop-intellectual standards, and has much philosophical throat-clearing around the Greek concept of thymos (the desire for individual or collective recognition), Hegelian historicism, and Nietzschean apocalyptic prophecy.
The tl;dr is that Fukuyama certainly did not predict some endless post-Soviet utopia. What he did predict is that human political evolution, from hunter-gatherer tribes to the agricultural theocracies of Mesopotamia to the dynastic monarchies of medieval Europe to even the attempts at collectivist dictatorship like Communism, had found its end in capitalist liberal democracy. Unlike Marx predicted, bourgeois liberalism would not be a preface to world Communism (which would be discarded as an evolutionary dead end) or some other perhaps more radical form of government. Liberal democracy is the terminus of human politics, at least for the foreseeable future. Whatever we might think of what liberalism has become, we’re stuck with it unless we want to hit ‘reverse’ on the collective political car.
The liberal bet at the End of History is that capitalism convinces the aspiring Castros and Hitlers and Putins of the world to pick up a laptop and do a startup rather than play far more visceral prestige contests with modern weaponry instead.
Trying to hit ‘reverse’ is exactly what Fukuyama warned about in his startlingly prescient last chapter (which his critics definitely didn’t read): humans would backslide into prior forms of political organization, out of sheer boredom if nothing else. Fukuyama’s sometimes dry academic exposition reaches lyrical heights in this final chapter, so I’ll just quote him liberally (pun intended). He opens the chapter titled ‘Immense Wars of the Spirit’—Nietzsche’s term for the post-Historical prestige battles of his Last Man—with:
The decline of community life suggests that in the future, we risk becoming secure and self-absorbed last men, devoid of thymotic striving for higher goals in our pursuit of private comforts. But the opposite danger exists as well, namely, that we will return to being first men engaged in bloody and pointless prestige battles, only this time with modern weapons. Indeed, the two problems are related to one another, for the absence of regular and constructive outlets for megalothymia may simply lead to its later resurgence in an extreme and pathological form.
Megalothymia here is the exaggerated form of Greek thymos, or the spirited pursuit of public recognition (what Machiavelli referred to as virtù in The Prince). The problem of liberalism is what to do with the megalothymotic individuals among us, i.e., those with such burning ego that they won’t simply be satisfied with the petty dramas and pleasant consumerism of post-Historical life:
In particular, the virtues and ambitions called forth by war are unlikely to find expression in liberal democracies. There will be plenty of metaphorical wars—corporate lawyers specializing in hostile takeovers who will think of themselves as sharks or gunslingers, and bond traders who imagine, as in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, that they are “masters of the universe.” (They will believe this, however, only in bull markets.) But as they sink into the soft leather of their BMWs, they will know somewhere in the back of their minds that there have been real gunslingers and masters in the world, who would feel contempt for the petty virtues required to become rich or famous in modern America.