Dead End of History

Arthur: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
Black Knight: ‘Tis but a scratch.
Arthur: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
Black Knight: No, it isn’t.
Arthur: Well, what’s that, then?
Black Knight: I’ve had worse.
Arthur: You liar!
Black Knight: Come on, you pansy!

–Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Here is an online interview with Francis Fukuyama 20 years after the publishing the book that brought him into the limelight – The End of History. While I have many bad things to say about the original account, I really even don’t need to bother – for two reasons: 1) Fukuyama’s Hegelian view of the ultimate and irreversible victory of the liberal democracy has not only been challenged by a huge number of people, smart and otherwise, all around the world but has proven wrong also empirically, and 2) he seems to have learned next to nothing over the last two decades. So let’s take a look at some of the arguments that Fukuyama brings forth in his interview.

The basic point — that liberal democracy is the final form of government — is still basically right. Obviously there are alternatives out there, like the Islamic Republic of Iran or Chinese authoritarianism. But I don’t think that all that many people are persuaded these are higher forms of civilization than what exists in Europe, the United States, Japan or other developed democracies; societies that provide their citizens with a higher level of prosperity and personal freedom.

Oh really? Not all that many people out there who don’t agree with Western liberal democracy being the “highest form of civilization”, you say? Apparently Fukuyama hasn’t been watching news much. But this is even not really the crux of the point. The real question would be this – as Žižek has asked: what if Chinese authoritarian form of state capitalism ends up providing its citizens with a higher level or prosperity (if not personal freedoms – but the value of those vs. some personal prosperity might vary in different places and at different times)? What then? Does is then become a highest form of civilization? And if not, why should the western liberal democracy be it now?

The real question is whether any other system of governance has emerged in the last 20 years that challenges this. The answer remains no.

China, anyone?

Clearly, that big surge toward democracy went as far as it could. Now there is a backlash against it in some places. But that doesn’t mean the larger trend is not still toward democracy.

However, this also doesn’t mean that the larger trend IS toward democracy. I mean, it’s not that I loathe liberal democracy and think that it is bad for the people and should be just forgotten – quite to the contrary. But to see the events of last 20 years as a temporary setback, or – to quote the Black Knight of Monthy Python – “nothing but a flesh wound”, would be a prime example of wishful thinking.

At the same time, I don’t believe the existence, or even prevalence of cultural attributes, including religion, are so overwhelming anywhere that you will not see a universal convergence toward rule of law and accountability.

What if accountability could be framed not only within the framework of periodic elections but, for instance, precisely in terms of religion? And, one could argue that sharia is the ultimate rule of law – a law that permeates the whole society.

In the end, though, that is not enough. You cannot solve the problem of the “bad emperor” through moral suasion. And China has had some pretty bad emperors over the centuries. Without procedural accountability, you can never establish real accountability.

This didn’t prevent George W. Bush running two consecutive terms as the emperor of not only America but, de facto, of the whole world. Any accountability, should such be forthcoming, is purely post factum – kind of Nürnberg-accountability at best. Of course, it is better than none at all, and the statutory limit of two terms of office means that no matter how bad the president, his damage is temporally limited to eight years. But as George W. Bush demonstrated, one can do a lot in eight years, and unfortunately liberal democracy is no safeguard against disasters such as this. In fact, I’d venture a guess that it will be a lore more difficult to make democratically elected leaders of Israel, for example, accountable for shelling schools and bombing civilian targets than will be to convict Karadzic.

It is certainly possible that Fukuyama is right and I am dead wrong. It is possible that we’re simply living through some dark times right now, that soon China’s success will cave in and that America and EU will claim their rightful places as beacons of civilization once again, beyond any challenge or doubt. This all is possible, although not very likely in my opinion. But this is not the point – it is all right to have different opinions. As Blaise Pascal pointed out long ago – what we should do in a situation where we have different options and opinions under the conditions of uncertainty is to look at their respective outcomes. Not only say that “I believe eventually it will be all right”, but also consider what happens if it won’t, what happens if things go otherwise. What if liberal democracy is not the final form of the government and society, what if it is not the end but instead a dead end of history? The fact that we would like it to be doesn’t make it so. And this is where Fukuyama fails most miserably by my standards.

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5 thoughts on “Dead End of History

  1. Not disagreeing with you there, but China suppresses feedback mechanisms for investment failures, and what is cheer-led as some almost genetic superiority of countless hordes of obedient, industrious, rabidly competitive Chinese people fails to address the more nuanced reality of what lies underneath apparent successes of China – an investment bubble that is about to run out its course.

  2. China may indeed well be – and probably is – a bubble of its own. But then again, most of the western world has been very busy suppressing feedback mechanisms as well, from subsidies to local agriculture to keeping the borders shut to immigration. So while I agree with you that China is no bulletproof model of economy for the future, it is not fundamentally worse or more rotten, just different. And saying “China is bound to fail and then everything returns to normal” doesn’t strike me as much of a contingency plan – in fact it sounds a lot like Japan’s defense plan against Mongol invasions of 13th century that relied on Mongol fleet sinking in storm upon reaching the Japanese coast.

  3. True that. But you must concede that the extremely slow trend in China, with dips in 1989, was and is towards liberal democracy, and not totalitarian communism or whatever they preach (and don’t practice) there.

  4. Hm. I think this is where it pays to be very careful with terminology. If the only alternatives are totalitarian communism and liberal democracy, then indeed, one would have to agree that China is moving towards the latter. However, I don’t believe that this is all there is. To me it looks that China is trying to find an alternative to both of those and taking a binary view here only serves to obfuscate things.

    This would be akin to looking at the 1930s in Europe as a binary struggle between communism and liberal capitalism – which would make one to concede that Hitler must have been a capitalist.

  5. Oh, and I forgot to add to the last comment – assuming conveniently and without question that moving towards capitalism inevitable leads to increasing personal freedoms and ultimately to the emergence of liberal democracy is another thing that Fukuyama (and several others) is guilty of. While it is true that this was the course that the events took in Europe and North America, it is no proof that this relationship is of necessary rather than contingent kind everywhere and at all times.

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