Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay ‘The End of History?’ announced the triumph of liberal democracy and the arrival of a post-ideological world. But was it just a rightwing argument in disguise? And has the demise of utopianism ushered in a ‘sad time’?

Eliane Glaser, Author

Bring back ideology: Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ 25 years on

In the summer of 1989, the American magazine the National Interest published an essay with the strikingly bold title “The End of History?”. Its author, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, announced that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. With anti-communist protests sweeping across the former Soviet Union, the essay seemed right on the money. Fukuyama became an unlikely star of political science, dubbed the “court philosopher of global capitalism” by John Gray. When his book The End of History and the Last Man appeared three years later, the qualifying question mark was gone.

The “end of history” thesis has been repeated enough to acquire the ring of truth – though it has also, of course, been challenged. Some critics have cited 9/11 as a major counterexample. Others have pointed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the Arab spring as proof that ideological contests remain.

But Fukuyama was careful to stress that he was not saying that nothing significant would happen any more, or that there would be no countries left in the world that did not conform to the liberal democratic model. “At the end of history,” he wrote, “it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.”

Fukuyama was talking about ideas rather than events. He believed that western liberal democracy, with its elegant balance of liberty and equality, could not be bettered; that its attainment would lead to a general calming in world affairs; and that in the long run it would be the only credible game in town. “What we are witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but 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.”

Fukuyama drew on the philosophy of Hegel, who defined history as a linear procession of epochs. Technological progress and the cumulative resolution of conflict allowed humans to advance from tribal to feudal to industrial society. For Marx, the journey ended with communism; Fukuyama was announcing a new destination.

For a long time his argument proved oddly resilient to challenges from the left. Neoliberalism has been pretty hegemonic. Over the last three years, however, in a belated reaction to the 2008 bank bailouts, cracks have started to appear. Global Occupy protests and demonstrations against austerity have led many commentators on the left – including the French philosopher Alain Badiou in The Rebirth of History and Seumas Milne in his collection of essays The Revenge of History – to wonder whether history is on the march once again. “What is going on?” asks Badiou. “The continuation, at all costs, of a weary world? A salutary crisis of that world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different world?” He tentatively regards the uprisings of 2011 as game-changing, with the potential to usher in a new political order. For Milne, likewise, developments such as the failure of the US to “democratise” Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crash and the flowering of socialism in Latin America demonstrate the “passing of the unipolar moment”.

What remains an open question is whether these developments – dramatic as they are – will actually result in anything. Leaderless and programme-light, dissent keeps failing to cohere, fragmenting into online petitions and single-issue campaigns. Is the left going to mount a coherent ideological challenge to the right, or are these just border skirmishes? Has history ended, or not?

As some on the left have long realised, Fukuyama was performing an ideological sleight of hand. Is “western liberal democracy”, as he argued, really an application of the principles of the French revolution? Or is it in fact a way of cloaking rightwing politics in benignly incontestable disguise? “Man’s universal right to freedom” sounds inspiring, but if you are on the right it is another way of saying economic liberalism. Besides, even that is a fiction: capitalism pretends to love free markets; in reality, it rigs markets for elites.

When he wrote “The End of History?”, Fukuyama was a neocon. He was taught by Leo Strauss’s protege Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind; he was a researcher for the Rand Corporation, the thinktank for the American military-industrial complex; and he followed his mentor Paul Wolfowitz into the Reagan administration. He showed his true political colours when he wrote that “the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the west … the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.” This was a highly tendentious claim even in 1989.

In 2006, in the wake of George W Bush’s catastrophic blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fukuyama repudiated neoconservatism in a book titled America at the Crossroads. In order to keep his end-of-history thesis intact, Fukuyama argued that the neocons had gone off on a Leninist tangent of historical determinism and artificial nation-building, and had departed from the correct understanding of historical evolution as an organic byproduct of material comfort and access to consumer goods.

The “post-ideology” sleight of hand nevertheless continues. “The markets”, which he hailed as the engine of progress, were and are talked about as “natural” – as if they were forces of gravity or Darwinian evolution. They are believed to impose “realistic” limits on policy; political prioritising hides behind practical references to the “public purse”. “This is the sober reality I must set out for the country today,” David Cameron said in June 2010, announcing his plan for cuts in public spending. “We are not doing this because we want to, driven by theory or ideology … We are doing this because we have to.” Through three decades of wonkery and spin, the right has systematically constructed an ideological movement that presents itself as anything but systematic, anything but ideological.

Fukuyama distinguished his own position from that of the sociologist Daniel Bell, who published a collection of essays in 1960 titled The End of Ideology. Bell had found himself, at the end of the 1950s, at a “disconcerting caesura”. Political society had rejected “the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions”, he wrote, and “in the west, among the intellectuals, the old passions are spent.” Bell also had ties to neocons but denied an affiliation to any ideology. Fukuyama claimed not that ideology per se was finished, but that the best possible ideology had evolved. Yet the “end of history” and the “end of ideology” arguments have the same effect: they conceal and naturalise the dominance of the right, and erase the rationale for debate.

While I recognise the ideological subterfuge (the markets as “natural”), there is a broader aspect to Fukuyama’s essay that I admire, and cannot analyse away. It ends with a surprisingly poignant passage: “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.”

It is hard not to conclude that this passage offers an accurate portrait of our age, in which the campfire conversations of young activists merely concern relative concentrations of CO2; the politics of nudge and solutionism are embraced by right and left alike; and the hordes camped out on the streets of Rio de Janeiro are awaiting the opening of Latin America’s first Apple store.

“In the post-historical period,” Fukuyama continues, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.” Doesn’t this vision seem exactly right? We appear to be losing a clear sense of both our history and our future, living in a perpetual present in which we have forgotten that things were different in the past and that there are, therefore, alternatives. (A parallel can perhaps be drawn with pop: we are in the post-postmodern age of the retro-authentic mashup. Contemporary songs – by Adele, Lady Gaga, La Roux – are simulacra of those produced in the 60s, 70s and 80s.)

I grew up in the 80s, marching against Thatcher. The left laid into the right. In 1990, when I turned 16, John Major became prime minister and the ideological clashes of British politics faded out. Major’s “back to basics” campaign was against highfalutin ideology; a disavowal of politics. (In recent advice to Conservative MPs, Major told them to focus less on “ideology” and more on “issues that actually worry people in their daily lives”. His rejection of the hardline right is to be applauded, but since when did daily issues have nothing to do with ideology?) Next came the triangulation of Tony Blair, his saintly transcendence of left and right; Barack Obama’s call for “a declaration of independence … from ideology”; and David Cameron saying he “doesn’t do isms”. Politics is now a matter of technocratic optimisation, of doing “what works” and “getting the job done”. In 2010, even the veteran conviction politician Shirley Williams praised the coalition government for its pledge to “work together in the national interest”. “The generation I belong to, steeped in ideology and partisan commitment, is passing away,” she wrote, commending a new spirit of “co-operation” over “the safe, long-established confrontation”. While declaring that the old polarities no longer pertain, all the main parties have shifted to the right.

Meanwhile, the performance of confrontation continues. Popular disaffection with mainstream politics manifests as a rejection of its tribal, shouty style. PMQs is criticised for being too raucous, but that is a distracting irrelevance now that policy differences seem imperceptible. The problem is not “divisiveness” but its opposite: the lack of democratic choice.

In the recent commentary on the death of Tony Benn, he has been repeatedly described as one of the final representatives of a sharply delineated political culture. “To the modern eye he broke the mould: a brazen, aristocratic ideologue in an age of middle-class triangulation and third ways,” wrote Mark Wallace, an editor at ConservativeHome. “But if those things seem so alien today, it’s not because he was a one-off but because he was the last of his kind.” The passing of political conviction is accepted as a given whatever one’s political conviction, but it is the left that stands to lose most.

In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama writes that the “enormously productive and dynamic economic world created by advancing technology” has a “tremendous homogenising power”: global political harmony is the “ultimate victory of the VCR”. But are consumerism and technology, as he suggests, really progressive? The internet came of age at the same time as I did. My undergraduate essays were handwritten, but in my third year I sent my first email using a green interface called Pine. My childhood correspondence fills several cardboard boxes, but during the 1990s the paper trail peters out. The rest is on email accounts owned by corporations with infantile names; some of those accounts are lost.

Is it an accident that the digital blitzing of boundaries between historical eras, work and play, this book and that, is happening at the same time as the seeming end of movements of all kinds, both cultural and political? My nostalgia for my own childhood is bound up with my nostalgia for political opposition and the material written word. I miss history, just as I miss my own history, and my childhood visions of the future. In my grander moments I feel like an embodiment of Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, meandering mournfully around Spotify and fretting about the left’s intellectual bankruptcy.

“The modern age was a time when human beings, alone or together, could sculpt the marble of history with the hammer of will,” writes the writer and activist Franco “Bifo” Berardi. Today, this has “vanished from sight. There is no longer … a progressive temporal dimension.”

As modernist housing projects fall into ruin, it is hard to recall the sincerity of Tomorrow’s World or SF that is not ironically space age or steampunk. It is barely possible to articulate a utopia, even (or especially) if you are on the left. Is this because of neoliberalism’s domination of the ideological landscape, or is it that we are in a post-ideological age, of which the internet is either a symptom or a cause? When every single person in a train carriage is staring at a small illuminated device, it is an almost tacky vision of dystopia. Technology – along with turbo-capitalism – seems to me to be hastening the cultural and environmental apocalypse. The way I see it, digital consumerism makes us too passive to revolt, or to save the world. If we accept it as inevitable it will indeed lead to the end of history, in more ways than one.

Is the recent challenging of Fukuyama’s thesis grounds for new optimism? It is still too early to tell. “What is happening to us in the early years of the century,” Badiou writes, is “something that would appear not to have any clear name in any accepted language.” Fukuyama himself speculated that the absence of idealism and struggle might yet spark their rekindling: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history,” he wrote, “will serve to get history started once again.” There is a glimmer of perverse hope in the fact that boredom is a luxury most of us can no longer afford.

Post-Neoliberal Order

The hollowed-out regulatory state is no match for the virus, either. In northeast Asia, where social bonds remain stronger and states still take more direct responsibility for economic and social outcomes, Covid-19 has been effectively contained – for now, at least. By contrast, Europe’s post-sovereign states have been ravaged. The virus is wreaking havoc on societies already devastated by a decade of EU-enforced austerity. From 2011-18, the EU told member-states to cut healthcare spending or outsource services 63 times. The humanitarian disaster unfolding in northern Italy – where incomes have stagnated for 20 years, and coronavirus deaths already exceed China’s – testifies to the political elite’s abandonment of their historic responsibility of providing security to the citizenry. Spain is not far behind. Greece, whose healthcare system has crumbled amid the social crisis caused by Euro-austerity, will surely follow.

The response in the world’s neoliberal heartlands – Britain and the United States – shows most acutely how the neoliberal order is crumbling in response to this public health emergency. In the space of a month, both governments have jettisoned policies considered unchangeable for decades, instead pursuing courses they would have denounced as ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ just days earlier.

In Britain, this began even more the Covid-19 crisis escalated, thanks to the Conservative Party’s emerging post-Thatcherite transformation under Boris Johnson. Randian deficit hawk Sajid Javid was ousted as Chancellor to enable a quasi-Keynesian budget, including increased public spending, investment in infrastructure and a £30bn stimulus.

Unsurprisingly, the wealthy and propertied received the most immediate help, with £350bn in loan guarantees and grants for business and mortgage holidays. But this was swiftly followed by a rent holiday and an extraordinary pledge to pay 80 percent of wages up to £2,500, initially for three months but ultimately for as long as necessary, plus an extra £7bn in welfare spending. The new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, pledged ‘unlimited sums’ of interest-free loans. The Bank of England similarly promised limitless quantities of new money. The total sum pledged already is equivalent to 15 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product. An even more staggering $2tr stimulus is being planned States-side.

As neoliberal orthodoxy is abandoned at breath-taking speed, left-wing ideas, previous considered beyond the pale, are effectively been adopted by right-wing governments. Few may have heard of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT): the claim that sovereign, currency-issuing states are never fiscally constrained but can issue money at will, only causing inflation if society’s productive capacities are exceeded. But MMT is now effectively the new orthodoxy.

Neoliberals have been trying to avoid this conclusion ever since the global financial crisis, when vast sums of currency were issued – euphemistically termed ‘quantitative easing’ (QE) – for the banks’ benefit. $4.5tr in the US, over £400bn in Britain, and €1.1tr in the Eurozone – yet inflation remained negligible. Ordinary people noticed this ‘magic money tree’ (as UK former prime minister Theresa May put it) and started to demand that it be shaken for them – ‘people’s QE’.

Now it is been shaken – but by the Right, not the Left. Indeed, right-wing columnists quixotically urge Boris Johnson’s government to ‘embrace socialism immediately to save the liberal free market’. Cheered on my centrists, a Tory minister admits they will end up implementing ‘most of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme’.

And where is all the money coming from? Taxes? Obviously not, as tax income is sharply contracting. The deficit hawks have all flown off.  Borrowing, then – but, MMT adherents argue, this is merely an accounting convention. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke admitted in 2009, ‘we simply use a computer to mark up the size of the account’.

Epochal Moment

Another fringe idea, Universal Basic Income (UBI) – where governments simply give free cash to individuals – is also having its day. A few months ago, UBI was a leftfield notion, limited to small-scale trials in peripheral countries like Finland. Now, centrist economists are demanding ‘unlimited compensation’ for lost wages, worldwide. Over 170 British parliamentarians backed UBI before Sunak’s support for incomes which, far from being ‘basic’, exceeds the median wage. Even the Trump administration seems set to ‘write cheques’ to hundreds of millions of Americans, following the advice of such notorious communists as Mitt Romney. ‘Not our UBI,’ the Left protests – but why would it be? It’s being implemented by the Right.

Meanwhile, command-and-control models of governance are being rapidly improvised as the regulatory state proves inadequate for crisis response. China and South Korea’s surveillance and control systems have become models for western states struggling to get ahead of COVID-19. Borders are being sealed, police and armies deployed, workforces mobilised, lockdowns implemented. A British state ill-accustomed to meaningful industrial policy, let alone planning, is now instructing businesses to manufacture 20,000 respirators in a fortnight, using local designs and components. Spain has nationalised private hospitals overnight.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest that these measures will be sufficient or effective – much is coming far too late, and inevitably our hollowed-out health services will be overwhelmed. Nor does it mean that many people, especially the poor, will not suffer – millions have already been laid off while others are forced to work in unsafe conditions. Still less does it mean that right-wing governments have suddenly found socialism – unless ‘disaster socialism’ counts.

Nor is this transformation happening at the same rate everywhere. The deathly rot of European integration is hard to shake off. The European Central Bank, bulwark of the EU’s constitutionalised neoliberalism, was sluggish in announcing QE measures, with its governor even deepening Italy’s agony by implying she would not shore up Rome’s bond yields. EU governments have also been quicker to impose authoritarian social controls than to realise that fiscal, not monetary, stimulus is urgently required. Nonetheless, even the über-austere German government is set to announce a €500bn rescue package, tearing up its ‘fiscal rules’.

We are clearly living through an epochal moment, with parallels to World War II – though not the ‘Blitz spirit’ nonsense being peddled elsewhere. It was WWII that finally ended the Great Depression, thanks to state-led mobilisation and coordination of the economy. Ravaged populations clearly saw through the laissez-faire lies of the 1930s: there was an alternative to the market; the state clearly did have extraordinary powers to meet collective needs and goals. There could be no return to ‘business as usual’. The post-war welfare state was born of this recognition, in the shadow of Stalin’s Soviet regime, which had already proven the power of the state in its own bloody fashion.

Today, the People’s Republic of China casts that shadow. China’s communist regime is authoritarian, brutal and ugly. Contrary to western imaginaries, its governance regime is also highly dysfunctional, riven by internal competition and bureaucratic dislocation – which impeded full recognition of the COVID-19 outbreak and its management. Nonetheless, the regime eventually managed to contain the virus, and many western liberals and leftists now demand Chinese-style lockdowns. Beijing now has sufficient bandwidth to troll western governments and magnanimously dispense assistance to stricken states like Iran and Italy – with tech oligarch Jack Ma even dispatching aid to the United States – while the EU rejects Italian pleas for assistance and even fines Rome for overspending.

Right now, there is widespread hostility to China – boiling over into xenophobia and even appalling racist attacks on ethnic Asians. But this hostility may not last. The US’s utterly shambolic response to Covid-19 will increasingly stand in stark contrast in China’s apparent authoritarian efficiency. And while China dispenses aid, the US is flying testing gear out of Italy and allegedly trying to take over foreign companies researching vaccines, in order to serve ‘America first’. The era of American hegemony is clearly dead and buried. Other Western governments presumably realise that if they cannot successfully manage the pandemic, they will be judged against a despotic regime and found wanting. This is yet another spur to abandon liberal shibboleths wherever necessary.

The Left Blindsided

All of this is highly disorienting for a Left that has become increasingly obsessed with ‘#resistance,’ instinctively opposing whatever the Right does while lacking any truly systematic alternative.

The problem is exemplified by acclaimed critical theorist Giorgio Agamben’s Foucauldian ranting against the ‘frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic’, while his countrymen die in droves.

Even mainstream leftist commentators are blindsided. The ink is barely dry on their op-eds – ‘well, okay, the government helped x, but what about y?’ – before yet another, larger aid package is announced. The anti-austerity Left has been exclusively focused on demanding higher government spending for so long, it hardly knows how to respond when it gets it. In Britain’s general election last December, the Labour Party ran on a platform promising adherence to fiscal rules which the Conservative government has torn up. As one Twitter wit put it so nicely, the far-left has been calling for ‘fully automated luxury communism,’ but Boris Johnson has provided ‘quarantine socialism in one country’.

This matters precisely because the old order is dead and the new is being forged piecemeal, day-by-day. Ruling elites do not know how this crisis ends. They are innovating on a daily basis, making it up as they go along. In this sense, everything is up in the air. The future is up for grabs – for good or bad.

In a society and state as dysfunctional as that of the United States, where the hollowing out of welfare and democracy has been deepest, it is easy to envisage an authoritarian trajectory. The rich are already panic-fleeing the cities. The frayed social bonds, deep poverty and widespread gun ownership of many American cities do not mix easily with food shortages and draconian containment measures. It is not fanciful to imagine severe social unrest, requiring the military to restore order. Nor is it clear how the US presidential election will be held on schedule in December, President Trump’s confidence that the virus will ‘go away’ by April notwithstanding.

The UK government’s proposed emergency measures also entail the biggest ever expansion of executive power in peacetime. Liberals are understandably (and rightly) concerned about civil liberties. But the Left should be even more concerned about democracy. In France, a ‘temporary’ state of emergency declared in 2015 was extended six times, then most of the measures were effectively made permanent through a new anti-terrorism bill. As the brutal repression of the gilets jaunes demonstrates, this has routinised despotic behaviour. The Left should not be calling for a national government to help steer an authoritarian state, but championing democratic control.

Indeed, perhaps the most terrible question posed by the pandemic is: how can democracy function when the citizenry cannot? A new order is being improvised primarily by right-wing politicians, while the citizens are stuck indoors, hoarding toilet paper and watching Netflix. Curbing the disease requires social distancing, but shaping the future requires collective action. World War Two birthed an order that favoured workers because they were well-organised through unions and parties. Today, the best our enfeebled unions and social-democratic parties seem to hope for is a new corporatism, which is in fact being created by the Right for its own purposes.

It is not even clear whether our already hollowed-out representative democracies can hold governments to account. Australia has suspended parliamentary sittings until August. The British parliament, already afflicted by the virus, has dispersed for a long recess after waving through a bill granting unprecedented peacetime powers to the executive.

These are urgent questions for the Left, for which there are no immediate or easy answers. But it is clear that democracy should be the focus. The argument should never have been about more or less state intervention in the economy, but in a moment when even that argument has been settled by the right, what now distinguishes the left? It can only be a demand for democratic, popular control over that intervention, to ensure that it serves the interests of workers, rather than simply lining the pockets of owners of capital and property. But for that to be meaningful, it requires the active involvement of the people – not their passive resignation to perpetual quarantine.

This is difficult precisely because the end of history has attenuated our civic and political life, leaving most of us atomised and fearful even before Covid-19 struck. The urgent priority is to ensure that basic democratic functions are maintained or restored as soon as possible – to demonstrate that democratic continuity is not incompatible with public health.

The longer-term task is to reconstitute a sense of collective subjectivity out of this crisis. One glimmer of hope is the thousands of mutual aid groups springing up in response to the crisis. Inspirational organising is happening spontaneously, largely independently of the state and political parties. Through these groups, many people are getting to know their neighbours for the first time and rediscovering the basic practices of solidarity. While their immediate task is just to help people survive the next few months, they could well be the basis of grassroots democratic renewal when the lockdowns are over.