University of Chicago

What the Fukuyama? by Selena Spencer

This piece argues against Francis Fukuyama’s famous piece “The End of History”.

In February 1989 at the University of Chicago in room 122 of the Social Science Research Building, Francis Fukuyama gave a speech about the state of international relations. He later wrote the article, “The End of History” based off of this talk for The National Interest. He argues that the world has reached the point of the end of history. He wrote that western liberal democracy is the form of governance that will prevail as the global universalistic rule due to the lack of competent ideological competitors. The speech was given at the beginning of the end of the Cold War, so Fukuyama argues that the competitors of fascism and communism have been adequately defeated.

Fukuyama’s argument is rooted in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s idea that history will culminate at one instantaneous moment. Hegel emphasizes that political liberalness follows after economic liberalism. In the case of China, Fukuyama argues that China will eventually democratize due to increased liberalness of the international political community. He goes forth to argue that nationalism and religion are possible threats to liberalism but both aren’t systematic enough or powerful enough to counter liberalism internationally. The conclusion drawn from “The End of History” is that at present there were no threats to liberal democracy and that universalization of western liberal democracy was proven to be the final form of human government. [1]

Fukuyama holds the preconception that Western Democracy is stable and that any threat to it will be created and initiated from an external source. He also argues that nationalism and religion aren’t formidable enough to combat the homogenous state of liberal democracy. I would like to argue that the current threat to liberal democracy lies within the countries that Fukuyama assumes to be the most democratically stable and influential. Fukuyama’s argument contradicts the reality of democracy internationally as we know it today.

The United States and Europe, largely, are now plagued with nationalistic movements that combat not only liberalism but also democracy. There are leaders of democratic nations that were formed post-cold war that now host similarly anti-democratic or illiberal national sentiments. Authoritarianism also poses a large threat to western democracy.  The authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, has displayed his anti-democratic tendencies through packing Hungarian courts and other political institutions with loyalists. He has also proposed changing the constitution in his own favor to eliminate the checks that exist on his power[2]. These instances are key signals of democratic erosion. Orbán has boasted of his goal of ‘illiberal’ democracy which mirrors the goals of Donald Trump, the President of the United States. The right wing politician has stated that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk,” and that refugees bring “gangs hunting down our women and daughters”[3]. Similarly, Donald Trump has recently and repeatedly referred to all immigrants as “animals, not people” [4]. These nationalistic and anti-liberal sentiments aren’t unique to Hungary or the U.S., they represent an international shift of right wing politicians and parties further towards the right.

The claim that religion isn’t powerful or systematic enough to counter liberalism also doesn’t completely hold true. While Islam as a state isn’t powerful enough to pose a threat as a combatant to liberal democracy, it does possess the power to make democracies erode internally. Movements to democratize the larger middle east made by western democracies have only increased the vitriol in which the inhabitants of the region rebuff democracy. These anti-democratic and therefore anti-western sentiments that exist within this region due to prolonged intervention, have spurred nationalistic sentiments within those same western democracies. The anti-immigrant sentiments prevalent in western democracies do pose a threat to liberalism as we know it to exist. And yes, the innate foundational religious differences between the two regions doesn’t help the situation.  

Fukuyama also stated that, “Those who believe that the future must inevitably be socialist tend to be very old, or very marginal to the real political discourse of their societies.” Considering the case of present day, I think it is fair to deduce that Fukuyama underestimated the polarization that has created the current political state of the United States. Bernie Sanders and many other politicians brand themselves as democratic-socialists and have sustained tremendous amounts of support and are effectively shifting the platforms of the Democratic Party further towards the left.

I would like to pose that the current and popular political sentiments and beliefs, including nationalism and religion, of western democratic populations are currently combating liberalness. As of now the end of history has been delayed.

1.Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16, 1989, pp. 3–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24027184.

2.Varol, Ozan O., Stealth Authoritarianism (April 24, 2014). 100 Iowa Law Review 1673 (2015); Lewis & Clark Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-12. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2428965

3.Puddington, Arch. “Modern Authoritarianism: Illiberal Democracies.” Modern Authoritarianism: Illiberal Democracies | Freedom House, Freedom House, 10 July 2017, freedomhouse.org/report/modern-authoritarianism-illiberal-democracies.

3.“Trump: Immigrant Gangs ‘Animals, Not People’.” BBC News, BBC, 17 May 2018, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-44148697/trump-immigrant-gangs-animals-not-people.

2 Comments

  1. Joseph Bodnar

    May 1, 2019 at 10:10 am

    This blog does well at juxtaposing Fukuyama’s thesis in “The End of History” with the threat that democracy faces today. But I’m going to play a slight bit of defense on an otherwise defeated thesis and try to show that there are some relevant insights in Fukuyama’s writings. Fukuyama’s article and later his book did mention nationalism and religion weren’t likely to disappear because liberal democracies had not solved for the human need for recognition of dignity. And Fukuyama’s “Last Man” is a reference to Nietzsche’s Last Man. Nietzsche’s “men without chests” spend life in search of consumer satisfaction without any higher goals, ambitions, or ideals. In “Imagined Communities,” Benedict Anderson shows that people take refuge in their cultural systems and that nationalism helps people manage “the overwhelming burden of human suffering.” So, if one were to place the “last man” in a liberal democracy that has experienced decades of rising socio-economic inequality, it’s a bit easier to understand how nationalism became a guiding force in modern politics.

  2. Joseph Libertin

    May 7, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    I agree very much with the opinions that you discussed. Fukuyama’s claims have proven to be insufficient in that liberal democracy has failed to stand versus nationalism and religion as you’ve pointed out. Another interesting example of this was during the Cold War. Although Fukuyama doesn’t place his claim during this time period, an analysis of nationalism during the Vietnam would undermine his claim. As shown, the people of Vietnam adamantly opposed the United States in a large amount of areas. Thus, it was nearly impossible for the United States to harness the support they needed from the locals to win the war. Furthermore, your point about the rise of right wing governments throughout the world is thought provoking. I believe Fukuyama oversteps his claim because the maintenance of a single form of government or ideal has yet be seen in history. Governments who have been democracy fall into authoritarian rule quite often today– Venezuela– and vice versa. However, there should be some consideration towards understanding why Fukuyama may have considered his claim as a reality for the world. At the end of the Cold War, the United States was clearly the world superpower . It dominated economically and militarily. Fukuyama may have seen this dominance as a pathway for worldwide democracy. While he was flawed in making overarching claims, his central argument did have some basis as there was reasonable evidence to point towards a halt in history.

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