In 1989, neocon political scientist Frances Fukuyama published an essay arguing that the impending breakup of the Soviet Union marked “the end of history.” It was highly controversial in its day and generated plenty of ink. We still used ink to print newspapers and magazines back then.
The phrase “end of history” sounds ridiculous on its face, and Fukuyama didn’t mean it literally. Of course time would march onward and stuff would continue to happen. What he was arguing instead was that all the great “isms” had been tried and proven to be failures. He believed what was left – what every country in the world was on its way toward – was Western-style liberal democracy.
From there on out, he argued, the major battles in society would no longer be over Great Ideas like communism versus capitalism, but over small mechanistic things, like increasing worker productivity and figuring out how to access Game of Thrones without having to pay for fifty other channels of crap.
Recent events in Ukraine might suggest that the demise of history has been overstated. Residents of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, we’re told, want to reunite with Russia, while those in the west of the country want to join the European Union. The current crisis was set off when then-president of Ukraine refused to sign a free trade treaty with the EU during a November summit in Vilnius.
Does Ukraine signal a return to grand ideological struggles? Kleptocracy versus technocracy? Or are we simply feeling the aftershocks of the end of Cold War? Which may themselves be aftershocks of the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Or are we looking at a fight over who will control the oil and natural gas resources needed to fuel the globe’s insatiable appetite for power of an electrical kind?
Many countries calling themselves democracies certainly aren’t. There are others that have refused to become Western-style liberal democracies and are doing fairly well for themselves, like Iran and China. Arguments against Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history have come from both the left and the right.
It’s been nearly 25 years since his essay appeared. Eliane Glaser - not a fan of his work - has a thoughtful piece at The Guardian about it. She looks back on the past quarter century and explores some the things Fukuyama may have unfortunately gotten right. It’s definitely worth a read.
Looking for your next book to read? I can recommend all these great indie press books.