Hardly any reader needs to be reminded: in 1989, Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” This represented the “End of History,” in the sense that history had rendered a definitive verdict: liberal democracy and capitalism are the most successful forms of social and political organization by virtually every conceivable measure.
In 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of Fukuyama’s original essay, I proclaimed that “Fukuyama was right (mostly).” This is a contrarian position today, as most casual commentators continue to treat Fukuyama’s thesis as a punchline. Every time a new conflict erupts or a country fails to transition to democracy, they try to score a cheap point by saying new wars or enduring autocracies prove history has not ended. The cheap point is an own-goal, demonstrating that they have not bothered to read what Fukuyama actually wrote. Fukuyama explicitly said that wars would continue and democracy would not effortlessly spread worldwide.
It is time to stop reading The End of History as futurology, pseudo-science, or the political science equivalent of astrology. Fukuyama deserves better than pundits who act like undergraduates whose words shed no light on the text but do demonstrate something about themselves: that they did not do the homework. Thankfully, Graham McAleer’s excellent lead essay for this forum does a great credit to the conversation on Fukuyama’s thesis. He takes it seriously on its terms, recognizes its sweep and ambition, brings out its enduring insights, and offers formidable—but not insurmountable—challenges.
McAleer rightly notes that Fukuyama anticipated challenges to democracy from nationalism and religious fundamentalism, the presence of which validates rather than undermines the End of History thesis. But McAleer argues that there is a coherent rival to the End of History that Fukuyama did not anticipate, one rooted in Carl Schmitt’s vision of the world carved up into rival civilizational blocks. McAleer sees echoes of Schmitt’s view in contemporary China’s vision of geopolitics (and, of course, in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations). But it is unclear to me how Schmitt’s vision is appreciably different from nationalism or fundamentalism, both of which carve up the world into discrete blocks based on culture or religion. I am no expert on Schmitt, but by McAleer’s description of him, it seems he could be seen as one of the intellectual godfathers of anti-globalization—which, again, is part of, not opposed to, the End of History thesis.
McAleer also argues that Schmitt’s political economy adds insight Fukuyama lacks by emphasizing the primary economic fact of appropriation. The world economy needs stuff; the distribution and location of stuff to be taken is an underlying fact that governs much of politics; and he who can take the most valuable stuff will have the most power—a fact that McAleer thinks Fukuyama overlooks. But again, we do not need Schmitt to recognize this rather obvious point. As I have argued elsewhere, foreign policy should rightly prioritize attention to regions where there are the greatest concentrations of wealth, power, and danger, which substantially overlaps with Schmitt’s argument about appropriation. Fukuyama may not have emphasized the point, but his views are hardly contradictory to it.
Where McAleer is closer to the mark about Fukuyama’s flaws, is here: the early Fukuyama trusted perhaps too much in Enlightenment optimism, technocracy, and secular rationality. McAleer, and the later Fukuyama, recognize that the secular, bureaucratic, rational state of Hegel’s imagination is almost a fantasy, riddled with corruption, nepotism, bloat, and incompetence in reality. The sort of liberal democracy that Fukuyama seemed to endorse in his early work is precisely the sort that has seen the bottom drop out of its popular standing over the past several decades.
The reasons the liberal state is suffering a crisis of legitimacy are varied. They include, in the United States at least, the Iraq war, the 2001 housing crisis and 2008 financial crisis, increasing polarization, COVID and COVID lockdowns, and, of course, the Trump presidency and everything surrounding it. But the crisis of legitimacy both pre-dates and transcends any of these individual events, evidenced in part by the global reach and multi-decade endurance of the crisis. I suspect the state is suffering a crisis of legitimacy because it is trying to do too much, trying to be something it cannot be, trying to meet human needs that are intrinsically pre-political.
Fukuyama briefly recognizes this in his original article, calling out “the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies.” Schmitt, of course, would have agreed—but his solution was to endorse the state’s effort to provide spiritual meaning and community, to make the nation-state a modern incarnation of an ancient polis, which Schmitt believed was fulfilled with the rise of fascism. History quite decisively showed how dangerous such an effort would be. But his deterministic concept of the friend-enemy distinction, his insistence on its universal applicability, and the danger of fascism are not the only reasons to disagree with Schmitt’s vision. We should also disagree with it because it doesn’t work. The sort of spiritual meaning and community the state provides is the febrile, astroturf, empty community of demagoguery and passion. It is both false and unsustainable.
Fukuyama not only understands this; as McAleer rightly notes, he warns against it in his 1992 book in the section on The Last Man. But Fukuyama didn’t stop there. He gave us a book-length treatment of something similar in what may actually be his finest work, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018). “The modern concept of identity places a supreme value on authenticity, on the validation of that inner being that is not being allowed to express itself,” he argues. Fukuyama argues these are the psychological roots behind identity politics, nationalism, Islamism, and more. Nationalism, for example, is “based on an intense nostalgia for an imagined past of strong community in which the division and confusions of a pluralist modern society did not exist.” Humans’ need for recognition and validation is a pre-political insight of psychology and spirituality that has enormous political consequences. McAleer in his critique implies Fukuyama was too enamored of systematic and mechanistic thinking. That may be true of the earlier work, but the latter is hardly that.
But it is fair to ask if Fukuyama has sufficient grounds on which to answer the psychological and spiritual challenges he rightly identifies. Fukuyama wants us to reaffirm the value of democratic equality and reject the siren calls of identity politics and nationalism. But why should we? If liberal democracy is spiritually empty—if recent history has rendered a verdict of its own—why stick with it? Of course, the alternatives we know about are terrible, but what should keep us from trying to find new ones?
We should not try to find new political options that are more spiritually fulfilling because politics is not supposed to be spiritually fulfilling. Liberalism is spiritually empty by design; the emptiness is a feature, not a bug, of the ideology. But Fukuyama leans too heavily on the optimistic, Enlightenment version of liberalism, which has lost sight of one of the main selling features of liberal thought. Because of its optimism, Enlightenment liberalism bleeds too easily into the progressivism of the contemporary left—which is just the latest intolerant political religion to try to take over our public square.
The right answer is a chastened liberalism that remembers its other roots: the Christian belief in original sin, fear of what mankind is capable of doing to itself, and a distrust of concentrations of power. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism was one version of what that might look like, and he articulated the best case for democracy from more pessimistic grounds. McAleer recognizes that there is a gap or a missing piece in Fukuyama’s thought but misidentifies it. The gap is that Fukuyama does not make use of the resources afforded by religious thought. It is an odd omission, considering that Fukuyama, in speaking of identity, recognition, thymos, and resentment, is addressing essentially spiritual questions.
But the gap leaves room for the next generation of thinkers to appreciate the best of Fukuyama’s thought—including the vision and sweep of The End of History, the staggering ambition and learning of his two-volume magnum opus on The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, and the deep psychological insight of Identity—and still see room for more.