By Alex Callinicos
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2795

Francis Fukuyama still doesn’t understand history

The conflict in eastern Europe must be understood in the context of neoliberalism and imperialism
Issue 2795
Man makes a speech at a microphone

Francis Fukuyama is scrambling for an analysis (Pic: Fronteiras do Pensamento/Flickr)

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”

So wrote Francis Fukuyama in his famous essay, “The End of History”. It was published in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall fell, announcing the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. “What we are witnessing,” argued Fukuyama, was “the end of history as such—that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Well, it doesn’t exactly feel as liberal capitalism has triumphed definitively. And life has been hardly boring recently—indeed, after Vladimir Putin’s nuclear alert, it may be getting a bit too interesting. So Fukuyama has a lot of explaining to do.

His latest attempt is a long essay in the Financial Times newspaper last week. Denouncing Putin is easy enough. But why are the liberal states, headed by the US, so much on the back foot? After all, in the two decades after 1989 they dominated the globe.

Fukuyama has some fairly feeble stuff complaining that “the anti-liberal right and left join hands in their distrust of science and expertise”. His main example from the left is the critical historian Michel Foucault. But what Fukuyama writes about Foucault suggests he hasn’t read a word of him. Nevertheless, there is a more interesting theme running through the essay, which is that the liberal capitalist societies have undermined themselves. This is stated most clearly in an earlier article in the Financial Times in November 2016, where Fukuyama was trying to explain Donald Trump’s election as US president.

The benefits of the “liberal world order,” “did not filter down to the whole population. The working classes in the developed world saw their jobs disappear as companies outsourced and squeezed efficiencies in response to a ruthlessly competitive global market. This long-term story was hugely exacerbated by the US subprime crisis of 2008, and the euro crisis that hit Europe a couple of years later.

“In both cases, systems designed by elites…collapsed dramatically in the face of external shocks. The costs of these failures were again much more heavily borne by ordinary workers than by the elites themselves. Ever since, the real question should not have been why populism has emerged in 2016, but why it took so long to become manifest.”

In the latest essay Fukuyama even manages explicitly to criticise neoliberalism for pushing economic liberalism “to unsustainable extremes”. He doesn’t mention the other main way that the “liberal world order” undermined itself, which is the disastrous wars launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Maybe, as the political economist Will Davies pointed out, this is because Fukuyama backed the neoconservative Project for the New American Century’s campaign for the US to go to war with Iraq. And he doesn’t fully confront one of the main paradoxes of the growing polarisation of world politics. China and Russia are the two great autocracies that liberals such as Fukuyama love condemning.

They have both rebuilt their power through participating in the Western-dominated global market as exporters of, respectively, manufactured goods and energy to the US and Europe. The Russian oligarchs that everyone wants to lynch now, with their Mayfair mansions and kids at British public schools, are part of global capitalism, not alien outsiders.

Fukuyama originally claimed to be a follower of the great German philosopher Hegel. But he never got Hegel’s central idea that what drives history are the contradictions internal to society. What we’re seeing now are the internal contradictions of neoliberal imperialism playing out, not a simple struggle between democracy and autocracy.

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