Our Hegelian Future

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The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, New York: The Free Press, 418 pages, $24.95

In the summer of 1989, as the Soviet empire crumbled, the West was swept by a wave of media hype over a 15-page essay, "The End of History?," by an obscure State Department policy planner named Francis Fukuyama.

With communism out of the picture, the article argued, the last major alternative to democratic capitalism has collapsed, and the liberal idea of man as a free, rational, ethical, individual being has gained universal acceptance. In other words, Fukuyama noted, the world has entered the era that the 19th-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel had looked forward to as the end of history.

Hegel had believed that the appearance, 2,500 years ago in Athens, of an image of man as an end in himself set human society wheeling down an evolutionary road. Slowly the Athenian ideal won converts, displacing the tribalism and tyranny of man's prehistory. The advancing liberal ethic, Hegel had held, would eventually become dominant everywhere, bringing history, in effect, to its logical conclusion in a kind of steady state from which there would be no exit because, he had concluded, liberalism has an unmatched ability to satisfy the moral and psychological needs of the human species.

Life on a totally liberal planet will have its good and bad points, Fukuyama predicted. With illiberal ideologies in retreat, the level of organized beastliness in human affairs will likely decline. On the other hand, in the absence of great issues, life at history's end will be something of a bore, and meanwhile all the bad old forces, such as religious intolerance and aggressive nationalism, will continue to wreak havoc, albeit, Fukuyama thought, with slowly dwindling virulence.

The response to Fukuyama's thesis was a thunderous outpouring of fascination and cold feet.

Yes, said commentators at every point of the political spectrum, communism's collapse is a momentous event. But no, they continued, Fukuyama is crazy if he thinks it sets the stage for the final triumph of anything but their own political point of view.

Leftists argued that the collapse of Marxism-Leninism merely brings liberal democracy in the West that much closer to inevitable extinction. With the artificial stimulus of the Cold War gone, they said, capitalism will soon come a cropper on its natural tendency to create intolerable economic inequality. When it does, they said, people will have no choice but to turn to something like socialism.

Conservatives, wrapping the mantle of realpolitik tightly against the warm West wind, dismissed the notion that liberal ideas had won a decisive victory. Money and power and national interest, they declared, are what makes the world go 'round. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, they felt sure, the planet will remain a nasty and dangerous place, and the United States will have no alternative but to keep on bearing any burden and paying any price to assure the survival of the American way of life.

Even Hollywood got into the act. In the final scene of Star Trek VI, Captain Kirk puts down the wimps and wusses who see the future as "just the end of history." To the contrary, Kirk says, it's an "undiscovered country" that summons the species to glorious adventures yet to come.

Now, nearly three years after the Fukuyama flap, the Soviet Union has officially disappeared, and the 15-page essay has grown into a 400-page volume, The End of History and the Last Man. I exaggerate only a little when I say that it's hard to know which of these two is the happier or more important event.

This is a splendid book that explains where we've been, and maps the territory we inhabit now, in a way that will find spellbound readers everywhere. As amplified by the author's always-intelligent analysis and pleasantly conversational prose, the Fukuyama thesis turns out to be that rarest of modern occurrences, a media event that actually manages to illuminate events.

Fukuyama turned article into book, not by trying to add detail to his picture of the future, but by explaining in much greater depth why, in Hegel's analysis, liberal democracy ends up on top. This plunges him into political theory, from which he returns with the old-fashioned and highly persuasive notion that liberal ideals correspond uniquely well to basic human needs. Fukuyama's discussion of human psychology, and its relation to politics and economics, is the core of this book.

In the Anglo-Saxon version of liberalism, from which the American tradition stems, man is a creature mainly of material desires, and he's satisfied whenever his appetites are satisfied. To Hegel, by contrast, the core of human nature was a quality the ancient Greeks defined as thymos—spiritedness, the desire for recognition, self-esteem, and the need to create through work. Man's thymotic needs, Fukuyama argues, are what make individual freedom, equal citizenship, liberal democracy, and market capitalism so humanly satisfying and so superior to alternative forms of social and political life.

Fukuyama's Hegelian version of liberalism defines a persuasive and needed alternative to the too-narrow economic viewpoint that dominates much libertarian and individualist thought in America today. It shows a way to think about freedom that preserves the political and social side of man while still affirming his free and individual nature, and that makes room for transactions among consenting adults without reducing everything in life to economics. It's a perspective that can explain, as some latter-day economic Lockianism cannot, why Chile or China aren't models to emulate—why authoritarian governments presiding over market economies aren't enough, and why people need constitutional democracy, the experience of citizenship, and a sense of a common destiny as well.

This is no mere theoretical issue. Much of what's amiss in America today reflects a confusion, and not only among classical liberals, as to the relationship between economics and politics. Fukuyama's Hegelian liberalism makes it clear, as the Anglo-Saxon type doesn't, what's wrong when business executives, in their pursuit of sales and profits, welcome government interventions in the market that they figure have no public merit but will help their companies' bottom lines. Similarly, it spotlights what's wrong with racial discrimination and other private actions aimed at creating advantages or disadvantages that aren't consistent with the thymotic aspect of individual rights.

Readers will find plenty to quibble with. Fukuyama generalizes a bit broadly. Liberal democracy may be ascendant, but it hasn't triumphed everywhere. While kaput in the former Warsaw Pact countries, Marxism is still the public philosophy of a billion Chinese, who hear "bourgeois capitalism" lambasted daily in official forums.

Moreover, while political fascism is dead, the economic part of fascism—that is, state management of key markets in the interest of private producer groups—is very much alive, not only in Japan, but in Europe, much of the Democratic and Republican parties, many big American corporations, and the Third World, among other places.

This book is also irritatingly complacent. Fukuyama is so fixated on the failures of Marxism that he ignores the mess in liberalism's own house—in the United States, for instance, a budget deficit that's headed for catastrophe, declining real per-capita wages, rising racial conflict, chronic trade-war fever, and the public's well-founded alienation from its leaders. These are not the negligible problems that Fukuyama, by his silence, implies.

Fukuyama is no Pollyanna about our liberal future, but some will object, as I do, that the anxieties he does define are misplaced. The book argues that the thymotic need for recognition often entails a need for superiority over others and deference from others, and it worries, with Nietzsche, that the end of history will be so egalitarian that this side of human nature will be frustrated, causing ambition to languish and creativity to wither. Judging from his unsympathetic remarks about black activism, feminism, curricular cultural pluralism, and the rest of the campus political correctness scene, Fukuyama also believes that such an egalitarian demolition job is well under way, and that the best among us, and in us, is already being stifled.

Fukuyama's neoconservatism is showing. He's trying to have his liberal democracy both ways—as a general claim to equal rights and equal recognition on the part of everyone, and as a personal claim to superiority over Marxists, feminists, and other ideological opponents.

The problem here is twofold. First, Fukuyama sees a moral equivalence between the thymotic desire for equal recognition and the thymotic urge for superiority. The classical liberals didn't, and we shouldn't either. Their solution—to deny the reality of the thymotic part of the soul, to insist that the human personality is just an economic consumption function, and thereby to attempt to banish issues of recognition from liberal society—was wrong. But it's possible to acknowledge thymos and to make the distinctions among its forms that can begin to translate a partly troublesome natural urge into a moral principle.

Alas, Fukuyama doesn't undertake this necessary labor. If he had, I doubt he'd have ended up so uncritically sympathetic to what he calls, in a nasty neologism, megalothymos. I also doubt he'd have dismissed as blithely as he does the complaints by blacks, feminists, and others that the university invidiously denies them certain forms of recognition that it accords to other groups. And not least, I doubt that he'd have failed as much as he does to take note of the free market and the free society generally as a means of resolving conflicting thymotic needs harmoniously.

But Fukuyama can't address these issues as long as he remains a neoconservative, that is, an oligarchist in democrat's clothing. So for him as for those on the left and right who were so quick to dismiss his otherwise brilliant thesis, the fall of Soviet Marxism ends up only confirming what he'd been saying all along, too. The difference between him and his critics is that what he's been saying, taken more seriously than he himself does, and pressed farther beyond the intellectual confines of Cold War–era debate than he does, gets you somewhere really interesting and politically valuable.

Contributing Editor Paul H. Weaver is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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