History is Long and There's Nothing Special About Now
I have plenty of disagreements with Richard Hanania, but he’s an interesting thinker, so I was a little surprised to read this desultory argument that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man has been proven correct. Scott Alexander also gave the argument a tepid endorsement, a C- specifically. (His piece is a really worthwhile rumination.) Personally, I think the entire sweep of human history suggests that Fukuyama’s basic thesis was wrong, and the desire to believe him seems obviously based in an intellectual selfishness we would better avoid.
First - yes, the now boilerplate defense of Fukuyama is more or less correct. His end-of-history argument wasn’t that things would stop happening but rather that there would be no real challengers left to liberal capitalism after the fall of the USSR. He also did not celebrate this condition but found it rather somber. Major events would continue to transpire, some of them bad.
Here’s the trouble: history is long, and human beings have a really, really hard time not participating in a kind of historical chauvinism about their place in it. I would refute The End of History (which, full disclosure, I read back when I was an undergraduate) with induction: human beings are forever coming to believe that the system in which they live is the end of history and keep being wrong. For 300,000 years, we wandered the plains in small autonomous bands, hunting and gathering. We’ve had agriculture and civilization for perhaps 4% as long. For the people in that time period there was no reason to believe that the system would ever change, and for hundreds of thousands of years those who believed it never could would have been proven right. (Not that they really had a conception of an economy or political system.) In ancient economies, slavery tended to be absolutely central to the system, to the point that many would have assumed that you simply couldn’t have an economy without slavery. Things changed. In the medieval era, the common claim was that the feudal system was literally ordained by God, and if you thought it would last forever, for hundreds of years you would be proven right. Then plagues reduced the population sufficiently to shift leverage to the common man, and thinkers like John Locke provided the intellectual cover to start chipping away at dynastic aristocracy at the same time as a new class of merchants and artisans were rising in importance. Even Karl Marx, so forward-thinking in so many ways, was not able to look much beyond the system of material goods-based industrial capitalism he saw growing around him, which in turn makes his philosophy harder to interpret in a digital global information economy. The Fordist compromise was so sturdy we based an entire economic and social national self-conception on it, and then one generation of policymakers erased it. Things change.
Look: would it shock you if, in the year 3000, cybernetic implants were being implanted into fetuses in utero, most of the population spent a majority of its time in a virtual universe, and many of the basic functions of the economy that are currently being organized by markets are instead run by superintelligent AI? (Sounds awful to me, to be clear.) Would such a thing still be “liberal globalized capitalism” in any meaningful sense? I find this point to be so obvious and banal it’s hard to believe that people disagree with it. It’s not impossible that global warming so disrupts ordinary human civilization that we end up in an entirely different state of economic and political relations. It’s not impossible that nuclear war casts us into a period of catastrophic cooling and mass irradiation that something similar could happen. Artificial intelligence itself has the possibility to transformational change basic human relations to a degree that Fukuyama seems like a relic. History is long.
When I bring this stuff up to End of History defenders they tend to respond by stretching the boundaries of liberal democratic capitalism to such an extent that they go from being wrong to being not even wrong.
Why is the notion of the end of history so attractive to so many? I think it’s because of a basic psychological mechanism that few of us would consciously acknowledge: we believe now to be special because we live now. The period of liberal democratic capitalism that Fukuyama has nominated as the end of history is a tiny blip in humanity’s short history, but it’s the blip in which Fukuyama lives and in which we live. Our consciousness is a remarkably powerful system, but one of its inherent drawbacks is that by its nature it foregrounds and highlights the self. This difficulty in seeing outside of the self leads to all manner of personal and social problems, and it really makes perspective difficult. I think people naturally tend to think that the time they live in is special because they inherently see themselves as special. But we’re no more able to see outside of our own limited and contingent place in history than the ancient Roman who thought that the empire would never fall.
Do I think we’ll see the fall of liberal capitalism in my own lifetime? No, I don’t. But who knows? History moves very slowly, and then all at once.
A few thoughts.
First, I think the qualified defense of Fukuyama is that the events since the book was written have not in some way rendered it obviously wrong. That is, I don't think empirically it is on any weaker footing today than it was the day the original essay, never mind book, was written. And a great deal of it beyond the central thesis is stuff that people should take to heart; namely, the weakness of the many contemporary forms of non-democracy that have at various times been trumpeted as superior. It's striking to reread the book today and be reminded that he was not resting that component of the argument on the fall of the Soviet Union, but on the long decline of non-democracies starting in the 70s and very much including right-wing authoritarians. In short, there's a lot of value to the book even if one disagrees with the central argument.
Second, I have to agree with you. More than agreeing with you, I think Fukuyama's Hegelian framing is very strange. He rests not on structural changes in the human situation with the onset of technological/scientific/productive advances in the 19th century, but on the logic of democratic narratives as legitimators. I simply can't get on board with that; it brings on board too many assumptions with too little to go on. And ultimately I'm with you: history is long, and the period since the onset of the Industrial and Scientific revolutions has been a blink of an eye. It could be that there will be some unrecognizable institutional forms in a hundred years or in five hundred years. It could also be that the gains of the last two hundred years are a flash in the pan and we'll end up back at the horrible old equilibrium, or some other, nevertheless worse one. I find that one unlikely, but not exactly impossible. Certainly just as possible as that we've discovered all the institutional arrangements that we are going to, so soon after the old agrarian era has ended.
Finally, at the risk of an unwelcome comment, I have to disagree with the idea that Hanania is an interesting thinker or at all worth engaging. I'm not big on "no-platforming," but in my view we'd all be much better off if he ended up unable to draw any audience whatsoever. He is a moral black hole, a completely reprehensible human being, who revels in childish cruelty and delights in the attention. That's all I have to say on that matter; I won't make myself a nuisance by commenting again should you mention him again.
I think "now" is the only version of the world we can grasp.
"Yes. It is senseless to claim that things exist in their instancing only. The template for the world and all in it was drawn long ago. Yet the story of the world, which is all the world we know, does not exist outside of the instruments of its execution. Nor can those instruments exist outside of their own history. And so on. This life of yours is not a picture of the world. it is the world itself and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Nothing else can contain it. Nothing else be by it contained."