"Last Man Standing" – Michael Brenes on Francis Fukuyama and the Return of HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: liberalism, Francis Fukuyama, Political theory
Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Liberalism and Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 182 pages.
“IN WATCHING THE FLOW of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something fundamental has happened in world history.” These were the seminal opening words of Francis Fukuyama’s article “The End of History?” published in the summer 1989 edition of The National Interest. Fukuyama, then a policy planner at the State Department, offered a simple, unoriginal, yet provocative thesis: humanity was on the precipice of a “post-historical world.” Rather than preparing for war, or for disorder at the mercy of communism’s coming demise, the world should prepare for a permanent end to imperial and ideological conflict. “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” Fukuyama wrote, was within sight. Our destiny, the world’s destiny, was liberal democracy: a Pax Liberalismus spurred by American global supremacy.
Months later, in November of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Eastern European bloc, then the Soviet Union, crumbled and collapsed in two years. Fukuyama had been dismissed by some as a self-indulgent charlatan. “I don’t believe a word of it,” said the neoconservative writer Irving Kristol. Yet now Fukuyama found widespread attention—and a new public role—as a prescient analyst. U.S. policymakers, the media, and the American intelligentsia turned Fukuyama’s hypothesis into prognostication—and into triumphalism. Here was confirmation that forty years of Cold War was worth it. The United States finally had the “the long peace” that supposedly justified proxy wars and killing fields, with Vietnamese children burned by American napalm bombs, with disappeared people in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, with military support for brutal regimes in Central America and the Middle East, and all the rest.
Fukuyama was present at the creation of history’s future. “All I can say is, if people can’t take a joke . . . ,” he would later say about the impact of his essay. But he took it seriously enough to turn his article into a 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, earning him international acclaim, a devoted readership, and teaching positions at George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University, and Stanford, where he is currently a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
It is now thirty years since the publication of The End of History and the Last Man. One might say again that “something fundamental has happened in world history.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has remade the landscape of the inconceivable. Land wars, wars for territory and prestige, are back. The war in Ukraine also comes as a global pandemic has transformed government’s responsibility to the public. We are regularly subjected to pronouncements that neoliberalism is dead, that a deregulated state trusting in market imperatives no longer serves the public good.
The world has been remade again. Yet if there were reasons to be optimistic about democracy in 1989, there’s little of that now: instead, fears about the demise of liberal democracy are rampant—in Europe and in the United States as much as anywhere else. So, now, as white nationalism and necropolitics animates the U.S. Republican Party, as over one million Americans have died from the Covid-19 virus, and as climate change has wreaked unmitigated, irreversible damage to world stability—not to mention mass incarceration operating as the primary solution to unemployment and poverty—what ambitions demarcate our era, what paradigm will determine our new order? What is to be done, dear Francis?
The best Fukuyama can muster, as conveyed in his new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is to mount a “defense of classical liberalism.” He’s looking backward, at what went wrong. The right and the left have distorted liberalism, attacked its premises, eroded its value, he argues. The right let neoliberalism run amok, while the left took refuge in identity politics that destroyed “modes of discourse” that stimulate free thinking. As a result, he implies, the liberalism of the post-Cold War moment is waning. Après Francis, le déluge.