Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

Political Thought

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Kant


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, self interest.

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.

Universal Couch Potatoes?

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?

World 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 them before.

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 economy.


Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: The Free Press, 1992.





Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate