Political Thought Links: Parallels:
The "End of History" Debate
In our own times, many follow Kant's view of historical progress
as inevitable. Lately, scholars have examined the assumption of
progress closely and debated it fiercely. Francis Fukuyama gained
both popular and scholarly reknown when he tried to explain the
significance of the collapse of communism, first in Eastern Europe
and then in the Soviet Union, in terms of a theory of historical
progress in some ways very similar to Kant's. In The End of History
and the Last Man, Fukuyama observed
that the sudden collapse of these communist strongholds caught
western democratic countries by surprise. He pointed out that
most western intellectuals were predicting or behaving as if the
communist system was here to stay-they had no idea they were so
weak on the inside. Fukuyama observed that these communist countries
collapsed largely under their own weight, the weight of political
oppression, economic deprivation, and general cultural dissatisfaction
in the face of continuing political and economic success from
their western neighbors.
Fukuyama derived part of his own theory of historical progress
directly from the essays by Kant which we have examined. He developed
a theory with two prongs. From Kant, he took the pacifying effects
of economic development and international trade. From the German
philosopher GFW Hegel he took the idea of the inherent human desire
for equal recognition which led the world toward republicanism
and law-governed international relations. These forces-trade fueled
by economic self-interest, and the desire for equal recognition-are
propelling us toward an end of history, a world of liberal democracies
and perpetual peace, a world in which the price of war is too
high and where cooperation pays. Fukuyama shows what we all know:
democracies (though often imperfect) are indeed spreading around
the globe at an ever increasing rate. He also demonstrates with
statistics a surprising fact: no liberal democracy has ever waged
war on another liberal democracy. He concludes that Kant was absolutely
correct about our future-it is one of peace and growing prosperity
based not upon some idealistic agreement but upon cold, hard,
However, inspired by Hegel and another German philosopher, Nietzsche,
Fukuyama ends his book with some serious doubts, not about the
"end of history," but about its value for our lives. Fukuyama
sometimes seemed to depict the end of history as entrapment instead
of emancipation. What will freedom mean to us when it can no longer
be threatened from without? Having won the security of our rights,
will we continue to use them as our founders desired, to exercise
the duties of citizenship and to preserve our proud independence?
What will our ever-increasing prosperity do to us-will we turn
into soulless materialists whose culture is not marked by beautiful
things such philosophy, art, and warlike heroism, but by gross,
trendy consumption and moral relativism? Fukuyama thinks there
is no turning back , but that we should think before we celebrate.
Kant's theory and its contemporary parallel in Fukuyama's thought
raise many questions of contemporary significance. Two of the
greatest have to do with what is life like at the end of history
(if it has indeed ended) and is the world indeed moving into an
era of interdependence and perpetual peace. Here we examine possible
answers to these two questions more closely.
The title of Fukuyama's book is The End of History and the Last
Man. The idea of the "last man" is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche's
famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Like Nietzsche, Fukuyama
is not so sure the future end of history is something to celebrate.
Nietzsche went so far as to describe the "last men" of history,
those whose societies had achieved either the liberal or socialist
vision of perfection, as "flea beetles," insects with no passion,
no soul. Fukuyama does not go so far as to describe last men as
insects. Neither does he call, as does Nietzsche, for a rebellion
against the social leveling and conformity that come with the
end of history. Fukuyama is much more sure the end is inevitable
and that we must simply learn to accept it.
As a consolation prize, Fukuyama tells us that while we will have
no more major conflicts about the best form of government, economy,
or life, we can still take part in the competitive spirit in other
ways-through sports, through the rough and tumble of business,
through competition in the arts and sciences. But will such civilized
competition be enough to satisfy the human soul's longing for
meaning and purpose?
In America, we are closer to Fukuyama's vision of the end of history
than any other country. America has led the way in the development
of capitalism and the large liberal state. Its citizens are more
economically comfortable than any other country's, despite the
fact that even here we continue to have pockets of poverty. The
largesse of contemporary capitalism is something we have come
to expect, to take for granted. But the range of products, their
quality, their cost for the average consumer, are all vastly better
at the beginning of 21st century America than they
have ever been, anywhere before. Are we Nietzsche's last men?
Those who answer that question in the affirmative point to several
social trends to make their case. First, there seems to be ever
growing political apathy, despite an ever increasing availability
of political information. Newspapers may not be growing in number,
but television news shows, news networks, and Internet news sources
are growing exponentially. Yet Americans, especially young Americans,
seem to be less aware of the issues, and less inclined to get
out and vote than ever before. Part of the reason seems to be
their conviction that their vote "doesn't really matter," that
other forces at work in our political and economic landscape have
more influence than the average citizen. But part of the problem
is also the relative satisfaction these citizens have with their
lives. They are so busy pursuing achievements in their private
lives, and enjoying the benefits of a burgeoning economy, to pay
too much attention to the "old" political issues in the old categories
of liberal and conservative.
Another indicator of the "last man" malaise often cited by social
critics is the supposed moral relativism of our age. Several Republican
candidates in the 2000 presidential race termed it the "if it
feels good, do it" mentality. They tended to blame the legal system
and other American institutions which do not always assign responsibility
for actions to the individual actor. Some critics sometimes blame
consumeristic capitalism for this mentality because it tends to
promote an insatiable appetite for more and more things and experiences.
Others blame liberal political institutions themselves for the
problem, arguing that the idea of individual rights and individual
achievement which are pillars of liberal democratic systems such
as ours, inevitably focus the mind too much on the individual
and promote selfishness and hedonism. All warn that the philosophy
"all values are relative, none are true" is a very dangerous one
to pass on to future generations. If all values are relative and
none are true, they argue, then there is nothing sacred about
the values of equality, democratic representation or rights. They
point out that this relativism could be the death of the very
democratic system that spawned it.
Are we becoming people who do not care about politics, even at
the most fundamental level of commitment to each others' political
rights and equality? Are we becoming merely slothful "couch potatoes"
whose only reason for getting off the couch and setting down the
remote is to make more money? If so, is this a social catastrophe,
or is it really so bad, after all?
There are many ways to counter the concerns of those who would
call today's Americans "last men." One could argue that they greatly
exaggerate the moral relativism of our time. Perhaps it is true
that the mentality of "if it feels good, do it" prevails in our
popular culture, as represented in our television shows and movies.
But average Americans still go to their places of worship, still
hold basic moral values to be true, still are capable of leading
stable, fulfilling family lives. New values, such as acceptance
for different types of families (lesbian or gay parenting, for
example), need not be seen as ultimate threats to our moral code,
or as evidence of moral relativism, but rather the extension of
our moral code to new people in new situations. The violence that
seems to pervade our culture can similarly be seen as less unique
and threatening. There have been other times in our own and in
other countries where there has been just as much if not more
violence than in ours. Violence needs to be dealt with, but it
does not need to be seen as a sign of inevitable doom.
As for the political apathy that some social critics emphasize,
defenders of the basic soundness of our system remind us that
young people have always been more interested in establishing
their own means of support and their own families than in politics.
The older a person is, the more likely he or she is to be able
to turn to these important, but seemingly more remote issues.
The older and more experienced people are, the more they participate,
and perhaps this is not a bad thing. Also, if people are feeling
alienated by our system, it indicates that we are not at the end
of history, but still have lots of work to do. If it has become
less democratic, more in thrall to special interests, then we
should make it less so. If people do not understand how their
government works, maybe it is the fault of our education system,
something which can be changed. There is no reason to despair,
and much to do to make our liberal democracy more liberal and
more democratic. So there are many who are not convinced the end
is here or that the way we live now is necessarily bad.
A more radical answer to the concerns of the aforementioned social
critics is to accept the fact that we are quickly becoming a nation
of apathetic, relativistic and materialistic couch potatoes, and
celebrate that fact! If we do not have much less to worry about,
if we can simply set back and enjoy life for a change. If we no
longer feel the need to condemn those whose values are different
from our own, isn't this peace, isn't this what future generations
were working and fighting for?
Government, World Federation, or Freedom?
There would seem to be three options for world organization: world
government, world federation as Kant describes it, or anarchy.
The latter option means rejecting any sort of formal agreement
among nations, completely retaining each country's sovereignty
and "going it alone." Let's take a brief look at these three options
and their pros and cons.
There are and have always been those who look to the possibility
of world government with hope. A world government, by definition,
would be what Kant terms a "nation of nations," i.e., one government
supreme over all countries. It would mean the elimination or diminution
of individual national governments. All the people of the world
would be citizens of the world government. If this could happen,
some of the benefits are obvious. No longer would we need to have
extreme differences in wealth in different parts of the world.
A world government could effectively redistribute resources from
those areas rich in resources or human capital to those that need
them. It could concentrate massive resources on lifting the educational
and economic level of afflicted areas of the world. A world government
could end war if it controlled the armaments well enough. It could
in effect become a "world policeman," coming in whenever violence
occurs in one of its provinces. A world government could extend
equality and rights to many of those who had never experienced
Sound good? Well, there are those pessimists, among them Kant,
who did not believe governments would ever give up their sovereignty
to any such government. Some might be forced to surrender to an
empire for awhile, but to imagine the entire world coming under
one government with all military might seemed unimaginable to
him. Contemporary critics of the world government idea stress
not only the difficulty in implementing such a government, but
also its dangers. They are not so sure they want the economic
leveling required to redistribute resources to the poor nations.
They are not so sure that such a system which seems to penalize
success, would provide adequate incentive for people anywhere
to work hard to achieve. Most fundamentally, they are not so sure
that such a government would be or would remain liberal or democratic.
Once all the power has been given to what under any circumstances
would be a huge government apparatus, what would keep human beings
in power from being corrupted by that power? History would tend
to bear out their concerns.
However, many of these same critics of world government are also
leery of the Kantian-style scheme of federation. In its contemporary
manifestation, they look with suspicion upon international political
and economic agreements among nations like the European Union,
the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT), the North
American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization
(WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations,
etc. These are agreements, freely entered into by the signing
nations, to accomplish certain political and economic tasks they
deem important to all of them. Those who applaud such agreements
point to the growing world economy and the growing ability of
the international community to respond to unjust aggression as
proof that such agreements or regimes can work.
Those who dislike the growth of international federation complain
that, while the governments entered into these agreements freely,
the people they represent did not necessarily approve. Now the
organizations make decisions collectively that the people of the
individual nations no longer can influence. Domestic regulations
can and have been changed to come into line with international
economic agreements such as NAFTA, without the democratic process
having any voice in the changes. Domestic interests such as the
viability of labor unions and high standards for health and safety
in the workplace can be threatened by these agreements as well.
As for the United Nations, they complain that the United States
pays a large part of the organization's bill and then is constantly
criticized and condemned by its General Assembly. They argue that
American foreign policy should not be hampered by having to go
through the United Nations or to appease its members. America,
they argue, is safest if it continues to have the ability (militarily
and politically) to use its power unilaterally.
What is wrong with staying out of such organizations entirely?
Such a position would seem to afford the United States the most
freedom. However, when much of the rest of the world is now cooperating,
at least to a limited extent when it is convenient to do so, a
high price comes from not "playing ball" with the rest of them.
We could not withdraw from GATT, for instance, without suffering
reprisals from other countries for raising our tariffs and other
trade barriers. To a large extent, like it or not, the international
context has changed so that at least some amount of Kant's "federation"
has to be endured if not enjoyed; some sovereignty must be transferred,
in order to continue to reap the rewards of the international
Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man,
New York: The Free Press, 1992.