As the World Gets Messier and Messier

Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought is the preeminent book series housing the great works of political theory. There are dozens of classics, ranging from Plato and Seneca to Bakunin and Sorel. At some point, The End of History and the Last Man will be included, and Francis Fukuyama will sit alongside the likes of de Vitoria, James VI of Scotland, and Bentham. The End of History is that good. Its influence has been enormous, and its core holding—that history ends in markets and liberal democracy—continues to bewilder and provoke: the claim is a red tag to the bull of sundry post-moderns, Marxists, and post-liberals. New books on strategy and security mention Fukuyama in their first pages. The prominent strategist John Mearsheimer says the book’s hopefulness swept US policy circles, its dominance only waning in 2016. Mearsheimer himself is rebuked in The End of History and he sometimes recounts how the book made people like him—Grinch-like proponents of a balance of powers approach in geopolitics—appear to be dinosaurs, at least for a while.

Revisiting his blockbuster recently, Fukuyama describes its thesis as “modest.” This is cheeky. It is one of the most audacious theoretical works of the last thirty years. In another bestseller, his mentor Allan Bloom had argued that it was European émigré intellectuals fleeing the Nazis who imported German thinkers into the US and thereby birthed the post-modern blighting of the contemporary university. Against this bleak perspective, and in a college culture skeptical of grand narratives, Fukuyama rearticulated the worth and hope of Enlightenment rationalism, and did so in the most unlikely way, by arguing that far from being a corrupter, the difficult German theorist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was the vindicator of capitalism and liberal democracy.

In 1992, the book was exhilarating: stridently unfashionable, revivifying a strain of Western thought that had gone dormant: Universal History. You get a sense of the grandeur of the book from its opening question: “Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy?” Fukuyama’s answer emerged as a fundamental contribution to the intellectual framework of globalization.

Fukuyama frequently comments that no sooner was the thesis penned than it was horribly misunderstood. In the decades that followed, the End of History thesis became associated with the Global War on Terror, its hubris, and its failings. Illustrative is a 2014 panel discussion of the thesis at Cornell, Fukuyama’s alma mater. In opening remarks, the moderator introducing the panel says Fukuyama was a proponent of the Iraq War. Fukuyama says nothing, but Mearsheimer, a panelist, corrects her in strong language for these academic sorts of things, by pointing out that Fukuyama opposed the Iraq War “much to his credit.” But, more broadly, the last few decades have seen confidence in Enlightenment rationality crater, bringing with it Fukuyama’s “high-water mark” version.

Fukuyama made the philosophy of history relevant again. Thirty years on, is that philosophy vindicated? What moves and shakes the world?

The Mechanism of History

The End of History documents a world uniting, a consequence of the spread of commercial civilization and its offspring, the modern liberal state. Evidence of this convergence was everywhere: Dictatorships, juntas, and “strong man” regimes collapsed in the latter decades of the twentieth century as the idea of liberal democracy verged on global legitimacy. It was this trend, and not the end of the Cold War, which inspired Fukuyama. He outlined the argument when only 36, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Working for the Department of State at the time, he first aired the thesis in a lecture at the University of Chicago in 1988 (Mearsheimer was in the audience).

In Fukuyama’s Universal History, “the regulator” is modern natural science, which is irresistible and has uniform effects:

Those that were not defeated by superior military technology were seduced by the glittering material world that modern natural science has created. . . . But if history is never to repeat itself, there must be a constant and uniform Mechanism or set of historical first causes that dictate evolution in a single direction, and that somehow preserves the memory of earlier periods into the present.

The cumulative gains of natural science revolutionized industrial technology, a change rich in political consequence. Fukuyama is a quirky Marxist, and so: “The rational organization of labour should not be regarded as a phenomenon separate in essence from technological innovation; both are aspects of the rationalization of economic life, the first in the sphere of social organization and the latter in the sphere of machine production.” Refined means of production necessitate an educated middle class. The consequence is that “technological complexity will strengthen the managerial class at the expense of the ideologists and militants.” For evidence, Fukuyama contrasts the slaughter of Cambodia’s professional class in Pol Pot’s anti-modernism drive with Deng Xiaoping’s protection of the technical intelligentsia. In Spain’s modernization, Opus Dei—a lay Catholic movement of technocrats—played a significant role in subverting Franco. There is a link between modernization and liberal reforms: strikingly, once a country passes the 6000$ per-capita income mark, power typically becomes participatory.

This logic of History relies heavily on Russian philosopher, Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968). Upon moving to Paris, Kojève gave a series of legendary lectures on Hegel. Dazzling France’s elite, he translated Hegel’s vertiginous talk of Absolute Spirit and World Soul into the argument that modernity begins with the division of labour and culminates in the “universal and homogeneous state.” Mastering the logic of specialization, business creates technocrats who also staff government. Intolerant of restraint and injustice, middle-class specialists in management build an impersonal bureaucracy to secure citizens’ liberty and equality. With the ornaments of industry and dignity assured by liberal administrators, History comes to a close, having furnished the globe with its target: “universal evolution in the direction of liberal democracy.” Fukuyama summarizes Kojève’s argument: “As Kojève once said, his goal was to establish the Roman Empire, but this time as a multinational soccer team.”  

Nuance makes much of Fukuyama’s reasoning provisional. He defends Universal History, but cautiously, which makes his argument nimbler than often reported. The reason for caution is that commercial society and its state offspring must satisfy three core human dynamisms: desire, thymos, and reason. Refinement of the means of production satisfies our desire for plenty and specialization generates the liberal administration that acts as a salve of thymos. An appetite for dignity, thymos is a struggle for recognition, the driver of History. The mutuality of the democratic state brings History to an end because the state acts like a perfectly placid mirror wherein all see themselves free and equal. Recognition achieved, hierarchy and subordination are overcome, and, in effect, power is annulled. The economically vibrant liberal state is the rational satisfaction of human longing. In Hegel-speak, History consummated in Absolute Spirit.

Fukuyama acknowledges the Mechanism driving towards Absolute Spirit has possible slippage. The problem is thymos: we might not be content with rational serenity. Maybe universal human dignity does not appeal: perhaps we lust for risk and the thrill of the irrational? Nietzsche figures prominently in The End of History, filling out the rest of the title, and the Last Man. The close of History gives us the Last Man: embourgeoisement produces “men without chests”: a population fat and happy sitting in front of a TV but incapable of self-respect. Hegel falsifies the human spirit, argues Nietzsche, for the very word man means the esteemer. Without domination and privilege, humans are self-loathing. In Nietzsche’s language, we do not want to give up on the Dionysian. Austere administration of liberty and equality might have an icy coolness that appeals, but only to a degree. Besides the reasonableness, equity, and elegance of the Apollonian, we also want the play of frenzy. Fukuyama: “Thus those who remain dissatisfied will always have the potential to restart history.” According to Nietzsche, without the manic drama of victory and defeat, life is not worth it.

In 1992, there were hopeful signs Hegel was more prophetic than Nietzsche. For Fukuyama, globalization matches our desire for decoration and dignity through twin pillars: international bodies, like the WTO, which deftly coordinate capital and specialized labour, and the spread of democratic nations, which makes rights common, releasing latencies in populations previously held back by monopolies and authoritarianism. The first supplants empire: “the world in which [people now] live is less and less the old one of geopolitics.” The second fosters a globe innovating in trade and thus generating benign, competent states administered by technocrats, not juntas.

But in 2022, globalization is out of steam. The liberal international order is in retreat. The first chapter of Pope Francis’s 2020 Fratelli Tutti captures the present: “Dark Clouds over a Closed World.” The “global demons” (Robert Kaplan) of geopolitics are back. As two well-placed strategists put it:

But now, of course, the so-called end of history has itself come to an end. The United States once again finds itself competing for global influence and ideas—and doing so alongside a set of states, many of them rising powers, that pledge no particular allegiance to these same liberal economic understandings, do not make any such disciplinary divides between geopolitics and economics in their own policy making, and are thoroughly comfortable with harnessing economic tools to work their strategic will in the world.

Globalization is waning because rising powers are forcing “their strategic will in the world,” and, in addition, something else ails most states. Forecasters identify “fading government legitimacy” as the principal driver of risk today.

Filling the vacuum is the third-largest non-state employer in the world—bested by only Walmart, and the Taiwanese FoxConn, which makes your iPhone: British private security company, G4S. Part of the problem is that few predicted the digital revolution in 1992, or the way in which supranational technology platforms would use it to marginalize the state and aid explosive growth in organized crime.

As the World Gets Messier and Messier

My title comes from John Mearsheimer when he shared a panel with Fukuyama at Cornell in 2014. We can wonder: Did things go sideways along lines predicted by Fukuyama’s theory or because his philosophy of history is wrong? It is some of both.

Ambitious powers deflecting History’s target were always a possibility predicted by the theory. On “irrational forms of thymos,” like religion and nationalism, Fukuyama said: “And the persistence of these differences may mean that international life will be seen increasingly as a competition not between rival ideologies—since most economically successful states will be organized along similar lines—but between different cultures.” He agreed with his teacher, Samuel Huntington, that “culture remains an irreducible component of human societies.” In this light, humans do not merely want to be happy: they want to be happy and proud. Consider Deng Xiaoping’s aphorism: “we cannot ride in other people’s cars.” As Hobbes saw with absolute clarity, pride is politically risky.

According to Fukuyama, “The Mechanism underlying our directional history leads equally well to a bureaucratic-authoritarian future as to a liberal one.” But China figures little in The End of History. Tiananmen Square made Fukuyama think China would soon be another data point: “the regime has lost control of significant parts of society.” He tends to see Deng as a Gorbachev figure, but Deng was made of sterner stuff: “State power is much more important than human rights.” However, Fukuyama is not wrong-footed by China’s state capitalism. Thymos is tricky: having adopted the division of labour, a proud people excelling at business might still tolerate an authoritarian bureaucratic state that promises to wash away national humiliation by outsiders. In communitarian Asia, Fukuyama saw the possibility of a people wanting national prestige more than the recognition of Absolute Spirit.

But Fukuyama did miss something significant. He repeatedly says there is no plausible rival philosophy of history: there is a “complete absence of coherent theoretical alternatives to liberal democracy.” But China did have a coherent alternative, one owing much to a theorist even more significant than Fukuyama, Carl Schmitt. Wang Huning is the Chinese Politburo’s strategist. In 1994 Huning said:

Fukuyama’s argument clearly states that the development of the history of humanity can only be explained through the lens of Western history, meaning that the histories of other regions can be discounted, because Western ideology has already become the end point of the development of history.  This kind of reasoning is the essence of cultural hegemony. 

In part, Fukuyama anticipated this challenge. Huning argues that since the End of History thesis is a ploy of Capital, it is just ideology: “Western countries have already completed their basic political development, and the next challenge is to expand throughout the world, to send capital out to the four corners of the planet. In such a context, sovereignty obviously becomes an obstacle.” Fukuyama would remind Huning that in Hegel ideology has a specific meaning: the truth of History is not an ideology, although earlier, incomplete versions of the truth are, e.g., Christian equality is an ideology presaging the rational truth of man.

But there is more to Huning’s criticism than the ploy of Capital:

In the context of Eastern and Western cultures, Chinese culture in and of itself possesses a cultural existence with a long history, broad diffusion, and overall integration, which naturally poses a latent challenge to Western culture. There are those in the West who have understood this, and who are anxious to use Western cultural values to establish norms for a currently rising China.

Huning channels Schmitt’s 1950 argument that world order is best secured by a balance of several independent civilizational blocs. In Schmitt’s philosophy of history, peoples develop law around taboos, which express and reify aspects of value in their lands. In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt argues that law articulates a man ring, a territorial consciousness of a people’s worth which lays down a border between them and others. This is the friend/enemy distinction that shapes all polities and encourages alliances between the civilizationally like-minded. This is a coherent theoretical vision of world order, which may include the civilizational order of liberal democracy, and others besides. One example is the accelerating“ broad diffusion” (Huning) of China’s Confucian statism, another is the Eurasianism found in Russian strategist, Aleksandr Dugin.


Schmitt’s philosophy of history corrects Fukuyama on one particular, critical point. For a theory so reliant on business, Fukuyama has a curiously underdeveloped account of commerce: “Scientific development makes possible the enormous increases in productivity that have driven modern capitalism and the liberation of technology and ideas in modern market economics.” Fukuyama consistently speaks of productivity, but, as Schmitt points out, both distribution and production are secondary to appropriation. The reason law is tied to land is that a primordial human experience of worth is what we value taking. You can only distribute the earth’s plenty equally, and freely produce life’s embellishments, once you have materials with which to work. This is what Deng means by sovereign state power and Huning by the “broad diffusion” of Chinese culture: those regions of the globe China has taken. Fukuyama is a white-shoe Marxist, but Deng was meat-and-potatoes, steeped in Marx’s lesson on expropriation.

You never get far in economics, realizes Marx, unless you take stuff. This is why empire has returned to public consciousness, though it was never truly absent. In Hegel’s thinking, History will kick off again if there is an unresolved contradiction in the system. For Fukuyama: “A ‘problem’ does not become a ’contradiction’ unless it is so serious that it not only cannot be solved within the system, but corrodes the legitimacy of the system itself such that the latter collapses under its own weight.” The Mechanism bringing History to a close—modernization and its management techniques—assumes unrestricted productivity. This assumption is a contradiction in Fukuyama’s market-driven liberal democratic “system”

Confidence in Fukuyama’s Kojèvan system depends on “The bourgeois revolution of which Hobbes and Locke were the prophets sought… to sublimate irrational manifestations of thymos like princely ambition and religious fanaticism into the unlimited accumulation of property.” However, the “unlimited accumulation of property” of the earliest adopters of economic development will run headlong into the “unlimited accumulation of property” of late adopters. Consider the scramble for rare-earth minerals and the geopolitics of microprocessors. Asked recently whether the US will go to war with China over Taiwan, Mearsheimer is unequivocal: in the event of an invasion, the US will fight, the “deep state” (his phrase) has no choice. The reason? No modern state, whether liberal or authoritarian, can perdure without semiconductors. The US has an army in South Korea and the Pacific Fleet on permanent patrol because South Korea and Taiwan are the giants of microprocessor manufacturing.

The world is getting messier and messier because there is a crisis of appropriation. It is not Nietzsche who exposed the contradiction in “the system,” but Schmitt. Schmitt offers a more compelling philosophy of history because appropriation, not productivity, is basic to the history of business.  

Sinecure State

Business is not the only thing Fukuyama undertheorized. His account of the state is wanting, and this is because he undertheorized the problem of nature. Forecasters identify the erosion of the legitimacy of the state as the greatest risk to today’s business environment. By later admission, Fukuyama did not ponder the factors necessary for generating the impersonal state. In the two volumes of his massive Political Order and Political Decay, he argues that repatrimonialization threatens state legitimacy. The original thesis relied on the Mechanism promoting robust states, but, critically, those states had to be representative bureaucracies if they were to diffuse the struggle for recognition. That liberal modernity is the rational choice for governance rests on this point. However, the last thirty years have witnessed the growth of what has been tagged the prebendary state: “There has been a great deal of political decay in the past generation.”

Throughout the world, including the US, the state, far from being devoted to the common good, has enriched a class faction, a class of technical managers upon whom the Kojèvean Fukuyama placed such weight to run the state. Government in America is rule by janissaries: families of functionaries who, by a revolving door, staff positions in universities, banks, the elite non-profit sector, and Congress. The sinecure state means there is no genuine rule of law in the US, only rule by highly credentialed families. Globally, patronage dispenses the bounties of government. The reason the “universal and homogeneous state” has not eventuated is human nature. Fukuyama states in 2014:   

Kin selection and reciprocal altruism are two natural modes of human sociability. Modern states create strict rules and incentives to overcome the tendency to favor family and friends, including practices such as civil service examinations, merit qualifications, conflict-of-interest regulations, and antibribery and anticorruption laws. But the force of natural sociability is so strong that it keeps finding a way to penetrate the system. Over the past half century, the American state has been “repatrimonialized,” in much the same way as the Chinese state in the Later Han dynasty, the Mamluk regime in Turkey just before its defeat by the Ottomans, and the French state under the ancien régime . . .

In 1992, Fukuyama’s Universal History took its origin from Hegel’s idea that human desire and consciousness have fundamentally changed over time: “the radical nature of Hegelian historicism is hard to perceive today because it is so much a part of our own historical horizon.” We can aspire to a government of liberty and equality because nature has no grip upon us. In Fukuyama’s telling of Hegel, History can make us free because we have always been free of the earth:

The distinction between human and non-human is fully rational: only human beings are free, that is, able to struggle for recognition in a battle of pure prestige. This distinction is based on nature, or rather, on the radical disjunction between the realm of nature and the realm of freedom. The distinction between one human group and another, on the other hand, is an accidental and arbitrary by-product of human history.

The “universal and homogeneous” state of Absolute Spirit is possible, it turns out, because we are angels, surfing above nature. There were hints in 1992 that Fukuyama knew this was well wide of the mark. Nietzschean pride was more of a risk to good governance than the appetite for equality because, he thought, a radical pursuit of equality “will quickly run into limits imposed by nature itself.” By 2014, he was sure that animality relies on the partiality of family and that in-group preference is not, therefore, “an accidental and arbitrary by-product of human history.” Critically, the partiality of nature is a brake on the movement of Absolute Spirit.

An Enduring Question

Fukuyama’s inquiry into Universal History retains its power because capacious minds want to know what moves and shakes the world. His answer has not played out and this is not a case of not yet. Impressively, some things seemingly cutting against the thesis were predicted by the theory. Fukuyama was always skeptical about Kojève’s claim that the state is “completely satisfying.” Even the claim sounds weird, but Fukuyama’s point was: Is there a more rational alternative than the bureaucratic state offering liberty and equality? He did not think so, and still does not think so.

That the End of History thesis is bruised around the edges, Fukuyama concedes, but he believes its core holding is still valid. A blend of Schmitt and Confucian hierarchy, China’s state capitalism will not deliver universal reciprocal recognition. It is nonetheless a cogent alternative. But still, Fukuyama asks that we wait and see in another twenty years. Even with a hefty dose of inequality, the liberal democratic state is the more rational alternative, he contends. This is not a case of wait-and-see, though: the thesis is wrong and Fukuyama is inconsistent. By his own strictures, the thesis is irrational: Schmitt poses appropriation as an unresolvable contradiction in the Mechanism, and there is growing evidence he is right.  

Fukuyama’s continuing confidence is inconsistent. His contribution to the intellectual framework of globalization was an unstable brew of Marxism-lite (“essentially an economic interpretation” of History) and the non-materialist and non-reductive claim that “people in all ages have taken the non-economic step of risking their lives” for dignity. The theory has a whiplash quality to it: materialism flipping to idealism, and back again. Maybe his teacher Allan Bloom was right after all, and the Germans did not have the answer. In the later part of the ’90s, Fukuyama started to agree and turned to the Scottish Enlightenment to find a resolution. Hume argues that we are partial animals because consciousness traces similarities and thus we privilege those close to us. Liberal education can trim our original passions to a degree, but privilege and patronage are never going away. Fukuyama admits this, and so the Kojèvean state cannot deliver.

Hope in a market-orientated state liberalism remains, but for another reason. Fukuyama will have read Smith’s gentler version of Zarathustra’s “esteemer.” In Smith, the human spirit is quixotic: acutely aware of dignity but nonetheless vain and apt to be deluded. We pursue the ornaments of fashion, despite the ego-bruising hierarchies of glamour and cool. This is just as well, because vanity is the engine of business. Vanity means subordination is natural to man, and thus we typically kowtow to the powerful. The division of labour is basic amongst the causes of the wealth of nations, but Hegel’s mistake was to think in terms of “the system.”

Smith observes that all civilizations dance. In Smith’s philosophy of history, the causes of the wealth and refinement of nations are more the masks and flights of ballet than anything called the Mechanism. Want and power cannot be annulled, but, like ballet, a hard-earned balance can be struck among the furies of need, love, resentment, family, establishment, nation, and the sacred. Fukuyama came late to the Scots, but he might originally have heard their perspective had he listened to the pulsating geometries of The Rite of Spring by Kojève’s contemporary and compatriot, Stravinsky.

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