Saturday, January 03, 2009

Redefining Fukuyama: The start of the end of history

Israel’s policy on Gaza is political and all about timing. They have a short two week window for a defacto invasion of the Strip before Obama is released from his self-imposed “one president at a time” shackles and Israel wakes up to a less-warm American leadership. That time block also gives Tzipi Livni a fortnight to present her credentials as a tough wartime leader before she herself goes for a “battle of the hawks” electoral showdown with Binyamin Netanyahu in late February. War, in this case, is a valid liberal democratic tool and thousands in Gaza will pay for it with their lives.

It was the victory of the capitalist liberal democratic idea that was the central thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s now almost notorious 1992 book with the portentous and pretentious title of “The end of history and the last man”. This book managed to offend everyone including historians, feminists, Marxists, Christians, economists and philosophers. His opponents took glee in pointing out that Fukuyama’s new world order era idea was declared destroyed as early as 11 September 2001. The recent death of Sam Huntington brings Fukuyama back to attention. Huntington's own 1993 “Clash of Civilisations” was an early model to contradict Fukuyama’s somewhat Pollyanna-ish view of the power of liberal democracy. Yet, no one has managed to come up with a convincing response to the central argument: what political system is better than the Capitalist Liberal Democratic model that is now a cornerstone of most countries across the world?

To get a good answer to that question it is necessary to move beyond the facile analysis that Fukuyama has been “proved wrong” and look at how a smart and highly-educated man might even consider the idea that history has ended. Fukuyama didn’t invent the notion. He argued strongly that the success of liberal democracy had less to do with the philosophies and ideas of Hobbes and Locke. Instead he attributed it to a rehash of the universal histories of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as filtered through the obscure work of Alexandre Kojeve.

Hegel was one of the great scholars of modernity and had enormous influence on those who followed him. Fukuyama considered Marx to be the best nineteenth century interpreter of Hegel’s ideas and Kojeve the foremost of those of the twentieth century. It was Kojeve who came to the conclusion that Hegel was right and that history had ended. He was even able to point to an exact event that ended it: the 1806 Battle of Jena which established the Napoleonic code as the cornerstone of European law. Teaching in Paris’s influencial Ecole Practique des Haute Etudes in the 1930s, Kojeve said that all the wars since Jena were merely an “alignment of the provinces”. The impact of the Bolshevist revolutions, he said, was to spread existing principles of liberty and equality.

Just as Fukuyama was ridiculed after 9/11, Kojeve’s own ideas became unfashionable after the devastating impact of World War II. Kojeve proclaimed the end of history would arrive when humans developed a complete satisfying political system. He argued that liberal democracy (despite its manifest faults of discrimination and poverty) provided such satisfaction. Kojeve saw entities such as the European Union as the most advanced form of liberal democracy and would eventually quit teaching and spend the rest of his life working for the EU.

His central idea was that all human action is based on the desire for recognition. This idea runs contrary to most Enlightenment thinking. In their influential writings, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke propagated the notion that citizens of society are primarily interested in their own material well-being. Their ideas were imbibed by the framers of the US constitution, a document which is pre-occupied with material well-being. But Kojeve said it was Hegel’s appeal to a “struggle for recognition” which was the real motor of civilisation. It is not self preservation but the prideful and assertive side of human nature that causes Palestinians in Gaza to toss rockets across the border and Israelis to respond with heavy artillery.

Humanity, according to Hegel, did have its natural side that demanded sleep, food and sex. But many human actions contradict these natural tendencies. They are sidetracked by thorny matters such as prestige, recognition, respect, honour, and dignity. Fukuyama identified the seat of all these complicated emotions as “thymos” which is a Greek word approximate to “spiritedness”. Thymos drove this desire for recognition, he said, and it was as crucial a cause of human action as both desire and reason.

Fukuyama saw the desire for recognition as the missing link between liberal economics and liberal politics. As people become wealthier they demand not simply more wealth but also recognition of their status. It drives the demand for democracy. The struggle for recognition out of thymos might take thousands of years but it would in the end, be “completely satisfying” because recognition was the most deep seated and fundamental human longing.

At the end of the twentieth century liberal democracy stood alone without ideological competitors. Fukuyama wrote that outside the Islamic world, there was a “general consensus that accepts liberal democracy’s claims to be the most rational form of government, that is, the state that realizes most fully either rational desire or rational recognition”. He would be eventually hoist on the petard of his own Islamic exclusion but has not yet been challenged on whether there are better systems available. The question for the 21st century is whether liberal democracy remains the best vehicle to tackle the growing list of global issues: environmental impact, water and food, international law, disease, biodiversity, and poverty.

Yet it is too easy to be stuck in the stasis of pessimism. The end of history seems no where on the horizon, thankfully, and the ability to create our destinies remains as strong as ever. Fukuyama’s thoughtful provocation on the subject should be seen for what it is, a brave and informed attempt to establish dialogue about the very real impact of motivations. It should not be condemned nor ignored for the obvious fact (quite apparent to the author himself) that history, in the sense we understand it, has continued. Thymos deserves to be better known.


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post - I've read other intellectuals who talk about the end of history - in the context of technology - that history will be replaced with something else - but I could never quite get my mind around the idea. It shows my infantilism, but I can't help noticing that the insertion of an "m" at an appropriate place in his last name, creates a designation commonly heard in the "hood".

Anonymous said...

Samuel last name is Huntington

Derek Barry said...

Thanks Anon - fixed.