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.