Modern Hell #10: The End of History
How a misunderstood viral political theory became a self-fulfilling prophesy
This is a longer-than-normal post and follows a structure I’ve stolen from others. In the end, I’ll get to a conclusion that I’m not sure is totally correct, but I’m going to show you roughly how I got there and you can let me know if it sounds interesting. By way of preface: For a long time I’ve been interested in the “end of history” phrase – its use and misuse – as one of the few well-known historical clichés (up there with ‘class of civilisations’, ‘Munich,’ & others), all of which, due to their pervasiveness in the collective consciousness have downstream impacts on future decisions and actions that are hard to define but I believe exist. Seeing 'the end of history’ come up again recently prompted me to think about what its popularity for the last 30 years may have done to our society.
“Imagine having a take so bad that, 33 years later, TIME puts out a cover dunking on it without any specific citation to your work and yet everyone knows exactly what it’s a reference to,” someone quipped recently on Twitter. The TIME cover was the one above, covering an issue dominated by news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And the reference is, of course, to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 National Interest essay that famously asked whether we’d reached “the end of history”.
The short version of the argument is that the fall of the Soviet Union signalled that humanity had reached a kind of ideological end point. The defeat of fascism in the second world war and then of communism suggested that the ideals of the French Revolution – that is to say, of liberal democracy – could not be improved upon.
“What we may be witnessing in not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” Fukuyama wrote at the time. If a society wants to be modern, he later clarified, nothing other than a market economy and a democratic political system would “yield better results.”
But the nuances of Fukuyama’s argument weren’t the reason for his success. More importantly was its title, which became more than just a cliché. It became an idea that spread widely across western culture. It became a meme.
And that meme carried two fundamental misconceptions about Fukuyama’s argument that would turn out to help create the bizarre world we now inhabit.
The first misconception embedded within the meme was the assumption that the “universal homogenous state" Fukuyama was referencing was the United States specifically. The second incorrect assumption was that he was being much more literal than he was — that is, that the U.S. had ‘won’ history.
Crucially, it was because of these assumptions that Fukuyama’s phrase reached meme status.
Near the end of his original essay, Fukuyama considered what might become of liberal democracy and its citizens. He decided that its failure might be that while it gave people a lot of things, it could never deliver on key desires that, left unfulfilled, could undermine it in the long run.
The problem we would face at the end of history, Fukuyama wrote, was that our societies would fail to speak to what he called “megalothymia,” or the Socratic elements of human nature like the recognition of inner dignity, pride, etc. that, when indulged, make people feel superior to others. Liberal democracies, he argued, didn’t really allow for it and instead worked to make everyone feel equal.
The latter half of the title of his 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man” is a reference to Nietzsche. Here’s Fukuyama interpreting Nietzsche in service of this argument:
The typical citizen of a liberal democracy was a ‘last man’ who, schooled by the founders of modern liberalism, gave up prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in favor of comfortable self-preservation. Liberal democracy produced ‘men without chests,’ composed of desire and reason but lacking thymos, clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long-term self-interest. The last man had no desire to be recognized as greater than others, and without such desire no excellence or achievement was possible. Content with his happiness and unable to feel any sense of shame for being unable to rise above those wants, the last man ceased to be human.
Doesn’t liberal democracy, Fukuyama asked, leave unfulfilled certain core aspects of human (or, to be specific, “man”) personality – “struggle, danger, risk, and daring” – and will leaving these unfulfilled lead to these last men “to assert themselves in new and unforeseen ways, even to the point of becoming once again bestial ‘first men’ engaged in bloody prestige battles, this time with modern weapons?” Fukuyama thought so.
The end of history, “will be a very sad time,” he wrote. “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. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of history.”
But where would people get the idea that they were not being fulfilled in these Nietzchean ways? Nietzsche believed that the drive for recognition was natural, that people would end up seeking it out no matter what. Fukuyama seemed to agree. But what if it wasn’t necessarily, innately true? If that that were the case, then someone would have to introduce the idea.
Someone like Fukuyama.
If Fukuyama’s original argument had been understood as it seems he intended, it would have likely remained an academic argument about liberal democracy’s ability to fulfil people’s basic needs and rights and avoid global war, as well as its inability to allow some people to express personal superiority over others beyond what the system can safely allow to maintain the common good — and that tension would have to be mitigated.
If this had been the case, it’s safe to assume that either most people would have ignored Fukuyama’s idea or just not heard of it at all. This is not a meme-able idea. It’s far too nuanced and would have likely remained only a point of discussion for nerds.
But because what ended up being the meme was the misunderstanding of the what the end-of-history catchphrase meant — akin to a headline going viral on social even as nobody reads the article – it was widely assumed that he was saying something different: that history was over and that America had won it.
The wildest part is that, because of the way the 1990s carried on – mostly peaceful for those nations who had ‘won’ the Cold War – the meme, misinterpreted as it was, was actually assumed to be correct.
That is, until things started to change, probably around 2008-2009 amidst a foreverwar on terror, a collapsing stock market, and an opiates crisis, when a lot of people started looking around and thinking: we ‘won’ history and this is what we got?
This situation created something very strange. Millions of people were having a rough time and were upset about tangible social failures in real ways. But many of them were also driven to deeper dissatisfaction with the system at large (liberal democracy) because of its failure to live up to expectations – expectations that were reinforced for well over a decade by the the misinterpretation of Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis, ie. the meme.
This might be a good spot to note that the idea that there was an end to history in an almost-literal sense was, I would guess, understood by everyone to apply largely to white people (white people also understood it this way). And so the impacts of its apparent failure to become manifest for a lot of those people was compounded because not only did the system apparently fail, it failed for those who innately assumed it to be fail-proof for them. White people never expected a white system to fail, especially when everyone assumed it was the best system humans would ever come up with.
Fukuyama concluded that humans “will rebel at the idea of being undifferentiated members of a universal and homogenous state, each the same as the other no matter where on the globe one goes. They will want to be citizens rather than bourgeois, finding the life of masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption – in the end, boring. They will want to have ideals by which to live and die, even if the largest ideals have been substantively realized here on earth, and they will want to risk their lives even if the international state system has succeeded in abolishing the possibility of war.”
It is here, in these few sentences, that Fukuyama essentially set out a blueprint for a powerful strain of 21st century grievance that undergirds everything from Donald Trump’s election in 2016 to a convoy of anti-maskers in Ottawa in 2022 – a line of grievance that is not set in today’s reality, and instead exists only in the imagined future of Cold War conservatives. A future we that we now, unfortunately, see becoming a reality by virtue of their influence for 30 years.
Fukuyama may have thought he was diagnosing a problem, but in a truly bizarre way, he may have actually helped create it. Because his conclusion above is now the basis for the argument used to legitimize the belief in the meme’s failure to describe reality – the argument which posits that the state wants everyone to be the same, that it kills individualism, and that it creates masterless slaves.
Modern liberal democracy doesn’t do that. Fukuyama just thought it probably would. What we’ve ended up with is an insane self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the misunderstanding of a prediction ended up creating something that looks like very thing the actual prediction predicted. (?!)
Because now, our current popular discourse is filled with people who entertain ideas about how to get that winning feeling back, especially if those methods are sold as being filled with risk, danger, and struggle. This is why we see people rail against imagined enemies and about their personal heroic struggle, all while equally presenting themselves as victims. They are chasing a meme, an abstract concept not based in reality. Fukuyama’s dream.
This might also help explain the recent support for authoritarian rulers, both domestic and foreign. Authoritarian systems appear to allow for what Fukuyama – and many conservatives since – said liberal democracy can’t deliver, and which is positioned as a solution to its failings: the Nietzchean human.
Here’s the kicker. We might never know if liberal democracy actually produces people who feel like they lack daring, imagination, and risk. What we know instead is that if you leave the idea that liberal democracy ‘won’ history to fester long enough unchallenged within a liberal democracy, what comes out are people who have convinced themselves they feel that way. They have become abstractions.
It is these hyperreal humans, for whom Fukuyama’s imagined future and our modern reality are one and the same, who have helped create a significant amount of current social conflict. This is not a fight over current informational realities, as we might think, but one over the very foundational assumptions we made about what the Cold War meant. It’s a fight about what the story of the last 30 years has actually been. The flashpoints are happening now, but this is a fight about which version of the past is real and which version is a meme. And, of course, over which one of those pasts will dictate the future.
None of this is to say that liberal democracy has no problems to solve, just that liberal democracy has other problems to solve – many, in fact, that speak more deeply to its foundational tenets like equality, justice, and human rights. And it’s incorrect that we struggle to define these concepts, as Fukuyama suggested. What is true instead is that some people, perhaps Fukuyama among them, refuse to accept the definitions we have.
Maybe the current war in Ukraine – the one that prompted TIME to put that phrase on its cover – will clarify things a bit. Perhaps addressing the end-of-history meme again will allow it to be considered more directly. Maybe there’s a chance to discuss liberal democracy again – what it is and what it isn’t, what it should do but isn’t, and, most importantly, our collective role within it. Maybe it will help us clarify the stakes – what we will lose without it and what the way in which we lose it could mean for the future.
Maybe re-upping the meme will help people understand that nobody wins history for themselves – that we either all succeed or fail together.
Maybe repeating the meme now will finally kill it.