The Triumph of History

Nearly two decades have passed now since Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history. The chorus of catcalls that greeted this claim was by no means undeserved. Still, his theory deserves a second look today, not least because the logic that underpinned it also guides a great many claims about the shape of the future in the age of peak oil.

Fukuyama’s proclamation appeared in a 1989 article titled “The End of History?” and was further expanded a book released later that same year, The End of History and the Last Man. His arguments were misunderstood generally enough that a brief summary of them is probably worth offering here. From the 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Fukuyama took the concept of history as a process of repeated conflicts and syntheses between contending forces, leading to a final state of perfection in which the ideal becomes manifest in historical time.

In Fukuyama’s reading, the contending forces are different systems of political economy, and history is the competition among them that ends with the victory of the best. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism, he argued, marked the completion of that process, because liberal democracy – his term for the hybrid corporate-socialist bureaucratic states currently governing most of the world’s industrial societies – has proven to be the best of all possible systems. Thus the historical process is at an end; in the years to come, those states that have not yet adopted liberal democracy will do so, and the world thereafter will bask in an endless afternoon, the closest approximation to Utopia that human nature allows.

A profound irony surrounds this argument, for at every point, it duplicated the Marxist theory Fukuyama dismissed so caustically – a point Fukuyama himself admitted in a later book. Not all that many years before “The End of History?” saw print, quoting Hegel and portraying history as a grand process leading to the best possible society were the distinctive badges of the Marxist intellectual. There was never much that was new, and even less that was genuinely conservative, in the thinking of the neoconservatives who embraced Fukuyama’s claims so enthusiastically, but his proclamation in many ways marked the nadir of the process by which the American right turned into a mirror image of the Marxism it thought it was opposing.

Fukuyama’s claims, though, deserve attention on their own right. In doing this it’s crucial to note the special sense he gave to the word “history.” He was not claiming, as many of his critics suggested, that what might more broadly be called historical events will stop happening; while he claimed that liberal democracy is the best possible system, he admitted its imperfections, and allowed that those imperfections may still lead to wars, political and economic crises, and a great deal of human misery. The end of history, rather, means that no one can ever propose a better system to deal with these difficulties than the one already in place; the challenges faced by the posthistoric world will be matters of management, not of fundamental change or reconsideration.

It’s at this point that Fukuyama’s argument finds common ground with a great many other claims about the future that circulate these days. Most proponents of today’s science, for example, argue that the scientific progress of the last century or so does not simply reflect the maturation of one culture’s way of thinking about nature but, rather, traces the discovery of objective truths that can be refined but not refuted; the more enthusiastic of today’s science writers, in fact, look forward to a time not too far in the future when all nature’s fundamental laws will be known, and researchers will have to content themselves with filling in minor details.

More generally, the collective imagination of the industrial world these days seems increasingly unable to imagine a future that isn’t either a rehash of the present or a sudden, cataclysmically driven lurch backward into the past. Today’s peak oil debates are a case in point. The mainstream consensus these days treats peak oil as a challenge to be solved by finding some other convenient fuel to power the existing machinery of industrial society; move toward the fringes and you’ll find most discussions center on a return to the past, ranging from the moderate – back to the 18th century – through the extreme – back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle – to the limiting case – back to a world without human beings, or even without life. All these claims, just as much as Fukuyama’s, treat the modern industrial world as the culmination of a historical process that runs in one direction to one foreordained conclusion.

What makes these proclamations of the end of history so fascinating is that they are themselves a historical phenomenon. The assurance of today’s scientists that the universe’s last mysteries will be solved in due time has its precise equivalent in the confidence of medieval scholastics that the nature of the world would be known for good once the last few problems with Ptolemy’s astronomy were worked out. Equally, Fukuyama’s confidence that liberal democracy was the final shape of human society has its mirror in the panegyrists of the Roman Empire, who saw the arrangements of their own time as the last word in human social structures.

As these examples suggest, claims that history has reached its final and unchanging state appear at a distinct stage in the development of cultures, and also in such cultural phenomena as science. Claims that Rome’s empire would last forever surfaced just as that empire’s expansion neared its limit, and took on a more insistent tone with each stage in the following decline. In the same way, Ptolemy’s earth-centered cosmology became steadily more entrenched in medieval culture as the problems fitting it with the observed facts became harder to ignore. Proclamations of an end to history, in fact, are one of the standard phenomena of periods in which the prospect of historical change has transformed itself from a promise to a threat.

It’s worth noting that the same stage of history also gives new impetus to the seemingly opposed belief that total cataclysmic change is imminent, and the existing order of things is about to pass away “in the twinkling of an eye.” The opposition here is more apparent than real, however; the new world waiting on the far side of apocalypse, whether it’s defined as the Kingdom of God, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the neoprimitivist hunter-gatherer utopia, or what have you is just as immune from history, at least in theory, as Fukuyama’s liberal democratic consensus. The only point under dispute is whether the ahistorical world of the future is the fulfillment of the present, or its total repudiation.

The rhetorical force and theoretical conviction of these expectations of an end to history cannot be doubted. Equally, though, it’s clear that every such claim that has been tested by events has been flattened by the steamroller force of historical change. The learned doctors who pronounce history dead, and the poets, prophets, and philosophers who write her epitaph, keep on being inconvenienced by the patient’s awkward refusal to lie down and stop breathing. Today’s prophets of history’s end commonly insist that it’s different this time, but then so did their predecessors, right back to the beginning of recorded history.

A meaningful philosophy of history, by contrast, needs to take history itself as its guide – not the few decades of history in which the Marxist-capitalist quarrel played out, as Fukuyama did, nor the few centuries from the end of the Middle Ages to the flowering of today’s technology, as the contemporary myth of progress does, but as broad a view as possible, embracing every human culture and every age of which sufficient details survive to make the exercise worthwhile. One lesson taught by any such broad view of history is that proclamations of the end of history are always premature. Another is that such proclamations are always popular at a time when attentive minds come to suspect that if history continues, the attainments of the present may not turn out to be as lasting as their propagandists claim.

To me, at least, it seems symptomatic that so many historians who attempt such a grasp of history as a whole come to see it in cyclical terms. From ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico to Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the theorists of historical cycles have argued that the historical process has no endpoint. Their logic cuts to the core of the argument Fukuyama borrowed from Hegel, and it also challenges some of the most common assumptions of today’s debates concerning peak oil, anthropogenic climate change, and the other manifestations of the crisis of contemporary industrial civilization.

The central problem with Fukuyama’s argument, from the point of view of a cyclical conception of history, is that it treats the idea of “the best possible society” as an abstraction, divorced from any sense of context and any awareness of the inevitable dependence of human societies on the nonhuman world. What is possible at one time is not possible for all times, and what is good at one point in history may turn out to be far from good at another. Whether what Fukuyama calls “liberal democracy” is the most satisfactory form of human society, then – a point I don’t propose to address here – it depends utterly on radically unsustainable relationships with the planetary biosphere, with the societies it exploits, and with the majority of its own population.

While it’s popular just now to argue that these problems can be fixed without undercutting the system itself, the evidence increasingly points the other way. The American way of life, for example, depends on arrangements that allow 5% of the world’s population to exploit some 33% of its natural resources. The convulsions set off in recent years by modest improvements in China’s and India’s standards of living demonstrate that on a finite planet with rapidly depleting resources, Fukuyama’s vision of a world made over in the image of America is a pipe dream.

Thus, as the theorists of historical cycles have been pointing out all along, history has no end; the consequences of each stage in the historical process set in motion the forces that lead to the next. The question we need to be asking as peak oil makes the transition from a theory to a hard reality, in turn, is not how we can impose an ahistorical permanence on a historical situation that, by its very nature, is unsustainable; nor how we can get ready for an apocalyptic transformation to some other, equally ahistorical future; but instead, how we can cope with the triumph of history over our fantasies of immutability with some measure of grace.