The End of History and the Last Man | Study Guide

Francis Fukuyama

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The End of History and the Last Man | Main Ideas


History Moves toward Progress

Fukuyama is adamant history has a shape and that it moves toward progress. At the time of writing this was an unfashionable idea, as he acknowledges in Chapter 1. The events of the 20th century had seemed to shatter the illusion of social progress, through two world wars, a number of smaller (but destructive) conquests, and atrocities like the Holocaust (the systematic killing of over 10 million Jews and other minorities by Nazi Germany). While the liberal West had seemed to abandon grand narratives of progress, the communist nations believed in their own narrative, derived from German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83), that communism would come to surpass the liberal states.

Fukuyama argues, primarily, this is not so. Communism was not a more advanced form of civilization, and Marx was wrong when he adapted German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) to suggest so. The events of the late 20th century show to Fukuyama that Hegel was essentially right: history has a shape, and it moves toward liberal democracy, not communism. Moreover, Fukuyama argues technological advance—and especially progress in the sciences—make capitalist economics inevitable. The downfall of the Soviet Union and its allies shows that Soviet communism was never a serious challenger to liberal democracy or capitalism at all.

In the book Fukuyama thus dispenses with competing theories of history. Firstly, he is adamant history does indeed have a discernible pattern (and a motion toward progress), and so he disdains theories of history that lack this metanarrative element. Secondly, he criticizes ancient conceptions of history that propose history moves in cycles. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–22 BCE) believed history moved between periods of freedom and tyranny. Fukuyama believes, instead, the logic of the Hegelian dialectic means History is shaped by the struggle of human beings to bring about a society that values the human desire for recognition. This society is liberal democracy. The "end" of history is the achievement of this end goal, epitomized by the triumph of the United States at the end of the Cold War (the 40-year arms race period of hostility without battles, between the United States and the Soviet Union). Events continue, but the long sweep of history, in the Hegelian sense, is at an end.

Capitalist Economics are Inevitable

As industrialization and capitalism (the economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and distributed through markets) took hold in the 19th century, left-wing political theorists like Karl Marx posed serious questions about whether capitalism was a just, equitable, or sustainable system. The idea that capitalism always implies an unjust distribution of resources led societies inspired by Marx and his followers, like the Soviet Union, to favor a planned economy. In a planned economy the resources of society would be deployed for the good of society not for the pursuit of private profit. To supporters of these regimes this was the only way to ensure economic justice.

Fukuyama more or less sidesteps the question of economic justice. The downfall of the Soviet Union made one thing very clear to Fukuyama and his peers: a planned economy could never work as well as a market economy. Even though, as critics pointed out, the results of economic planning were rarely particularly just (leaders of communist regimes tended to live in relative luxury), it is the lesson that capitalism was essentially the only system that was applicable to industrial modernity that Fukuyama stresses. Ultimately, a planned economy could not adapt quickly enough to technological or scientific progress. Planners could not assimilate enough data to predict vital innovations and allocate resources accordingly. The market did this work much more effectively through the mechanisms like supply and demand, and price fluctuation. Planned economies could mobilize themselves to develop heavy industry at a frightening rate; they could not adapt, however, to produce the kind of high-technology consumer goods that powered their capitalist rivals. The downfall of communist states was caused in part by this unsatisfied demand.

Fukuyama thinks the triumph of capitalism is so self-evident he spends much less time in the book discussing it than he does the rise of liberal democracy. The ascent of capitalism is a process that has proceeded—whatever its moral dimensions. This is because capitalist economics are tied directly to technological progress, which is itself a result of scientific progress. Fukuyama suggests society could no more slam the door shut on this progress than it could stop the tides.

Liberal Democracy is the Best Form of Government

Fukuyama believes the United States in the early 1990s is the final answer to a question that has vexed political theories for eons: what is the best form of government? Liberal democracy, as practiced by the 20th-century Americans, is this answer. The triumph of liberal democracy over communism—more than widespread acceptance of capitalism—is the event Fukuyama suggests has triggered the end of history. He is modest enough to acknowledge this was originally Hegel's idea, rather than his own—it simply took a century and a half to prove Hegel right.

Although Fukuyama is adamant liberal democracy will be unchallenged, he finds it a curiosity and its victory worthy of extensive explanation. This is because of the apparent paradoxes of liberal democracy. It does not necessarily promote economic growth as well as other, more authoritarian regimes. It hampers citizens' desire to be recognized as greater than others, and it softens the challenges and struggles that give human life meaning. It is corrosive to bonds of family and community.

To explain why liberal democracy, and not an alternative, is the final evolution of human society, Fukuyama turns to a philosophical argument. He argues Hegel had it right: humans were motivated by a "desire for recognition" that found its fullest and most universal expression in the liberal democratic state. The move toward this state was not smooth or even. It was arrived at after centuries of dialectical—and real, human—struggle. But for Fukuyama the desire for recognition and the logic of the dialectic is enough to suggest liberal democracy is in some way inevitable, and that it cannot be improved upon. The downfall of communism and the Soviet Union showed to Fukuyama's satisfaction that Hegel's conception of humanity and history had not been improved on by Hegel's student, Karl Marx.

On its merits liberal democracy allows the greatest freedom to the greatest number of people. All are equally free to earn the recognition of their peers. The "end of history" in the West is the triumph of a global "middle class," the inhabitants of the Western liberal democracies.

There are certainly problems within (and outside) of liberal democracies that will need to be answered. These challenges include fraying bonds of community and challenges from religious sentiment and nationalism. But Fukuyama believes liberal democracy has all the answers to these challenges. Never again will people consider alternative futures in which humanity moves beyond the liberal democratic model.

The End of History May Be Unsatisfying

Although The End of History and the Last Man is a work of triumphalism at the end of the Cold War, it ends on a strangely mournful note. The paradox Fukuyama identifies is simple: Humanity, having reached the end of History, has no more great struggles or revolutions to live through. All human needs can be met and human dignity can be satisfied. This means, however, that the "desire for recognition" that powered history might go unfulfilled. If there are no great struggles to be waged, serious political questions to ponder, or major wars for liberty to fight, what is the recognition-desiring human being at the end of History to do? In the final sentence of The End of History Fukuyama suggests such a desire for recognition may ultimately only be resolved through the conquest of space.

This is not the only problem Fukuyama detects at the end of history. A social conservative, Fukuyama is dismayed by the extent to which liberal democracy has caused fundamental social institutions, like the family and especially the community, to break down. He applauds the liberal focus on rights but is annoyed that these rights are not accompanied by strict responsibilities to the community.

Thus, while Fukuyama believes humanity has reached the end point of social progress, he does not mean "history," as in events and problems, has come to an end. The end of History is indeed fraught with problems to solve and issues to tackle. It is just that these problems lack the grand appeal of the earlier struggles. While Fukuyama relishes the defeat of Soviet communism and right-wing tyrannies, he seems to indicate he—and humanity—will miss the titanic struggles of ideology that shaped so much of human history.

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