The end of The End of History?

by Jack Owens

Francis Fukuyama’s article ‘The End of History?’ is so conspicuous that one risks cliché when citing its fall from grace vis-à-vis democratic decline. When first published in 1989, it triggered a vigorous debate about the future of the post-Cold War world order. Elaborating his thesis in The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, Fukuyama suggested that liberal democracy was the teleological endpoint of man’s political organisation. Though some democracies might struggle and some authoritarian regimes prosper, these were mere roadblocks in the evolutionary path of mankind – a path that would inevitably lead to free markets, universal suffrage, and liberal social values.

Fukuyama has never been short of critics. But now, more than ever, the foundations of liberal democracy are shaking. Freedom House recorded 2016 as the ‘11th consecutive year of decline in global political freedom’. The Economist’s intelligence unit has downgraded the United States to the status of ‘flawed democracy’ since Donald Trump’s presidency began. In Europe, a crisis of liberal democracy is rippling across the continent: Eurosceptic nationalists, from the UK through to Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Beata Szydlo’s Poland, are overturning liberal values enshrined in the treaties of the European Union. Further east, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a failed coup in July 2016 to justify sweeping new executive powers. To the south, the Arab Spring appears to have skipped summer and autumn, caught in the wintry winds of authoritarianism.

Yet, it’s not just on empirical grounds that we should challenge Fukuyama’s argument. The theoretical basis of his thesis also needs interrogating. Drawing heavily on the philosophical writings of Hegel and his posthumous interpreter Alexandre Kojève, Fukuyama argues that humans act in accordance with three different parts of the soul. First, the reasoning part; second, the desiring part; third, the thymotic part. The latter, coming from the ancient Greek thymos, which roughly means ‘spiritedness’, is central to Fukuyama’s argument. He contends that desire for self-recognition arising from thymos is a key piece in the puzzle of human history. Logic and desire can only explain so much about human behaviour: a person’s sense of self-worth is connected to some of the strongest human emotions – anger, shame, pride – which drive people do things that might contradict their logical intuitions.

The extreme of thymos, megalothymia, is the drive to be superior to others and has been at the root of all violence and war in human history, leading men to fight bloody battles for prestige. But the more temperate form of thymos, isothymia, is the desire to be recognised as equal. This has spurred men and women to fight for democracy since the French Revolution. In contrast to liberal democracy, authoritarian regimes do not give people equal rights in the governance of the state, and so fail to imbue their citizens with political self-worth. Central planning leaves citizens desirous of the fruits of capitalist production, as it did for many East Germans who looked towards the west and saw personal computers and mobile phones. Only robust liberal democracies adequately cater to the tastes of rational, self-esteeming individuals.

However, equal recognition in democracies does not guarantee that individual thymos will always be satisfied. In fact, there is a paradoxical tension between the satisfaction of isothymia and megalothymia that goes something like this: if everyone is equal, then no one can logically be superior. Critics from the left often cite economic inequality as a thorn in the side of liberal democracy, because isothymia can never be fully realised in unequal capitalist societies. Meanwhile, critics from the right see the goal of universal recognition as problematic for megalothymia-inclined individuals. Fukuyama conceded that the question of the end of history then amounts to a ‘question of the future of thymos: whether liberal democracy adequately satisfies the desire for recognition, as Kojève says, or whether it will remain radically unfulfilled and therefore capable of manifesting itself in an entirely different form.’[1]

So is the self-esteeming part of the soul fulfilled by (modern) liberal democracy? Consider the recent backlash against cosmopolitanism in Europe and the United States. Indignation at high immigration has been a key factor in election and referendum results on both sides of the Atlantic. Why? There is a clear contradiction in the narrative that immigrants arrive in developed countries both to steal jobs and claim benefits, and one imagines (or hopes) that only a small percentage of the population is straightforwardly xenophobic. A more powerful explanation for this voter behaviour is the sense of indignation felt by those disenchanted with ‘the system’ as a whole. Inertia on the part of mainstream political parties has slowly degraded the Western voter’s sense of self-esteem in public life. The success of populist parties like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom indicate a shift away from the political mainstream towards agile actors who are able to respond to – or perhaps manipulate – the thymotic desires of Western electorates.

If it is the case that isothymia is driving Europeans and Americans to vote against free movement of people and capital to ‘make their voices heard’, liberal democracy may expect a brief period of turbulence before business resumes as usual. While immigration exposes an inherent contradiction in liberal democracy – if what the people mandate is not socially progressive, how can democracy be liberal? – public debate is likely to iron out such problems over time. Democracies have generally been very good at working through their issues, since tolerance is the arch-virtue of robust democratic societies. In most western democracies, the journey from partial to universal suffrage spanned most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as minority groups from the Suffragettes to the American Civil Rights Movement struggled for equal recognition. Over time, however, the reactionary views of the enfranchised majority were worn down and replaced with a liberal consensus on voting rights.

But what if megalothymia is behind the recent return to nationalism? Does the portrayal of refugees and economic migrants as ‘cockroaches’ in right-wing discourse appeal to some deep-seated sense of higher self-worth among western electorates? While voters might not feel outright contempt for shipwrecked Ethiopians, Polish plumbers, or Mexicans running the border, is it not conceivable that they think they are ‘better’ than those whom they keep out? Such thinking is a powerful justification for (in)action, and far harder to reconcile with liberal doctrine.

In a sense, whichever of these urges is driving voter behaviour does not matter. Both are likely to be satisfying to the thymotic part of the soul, since democracy acts as a mechanism for people’s desires to be aired or achieved, no matter where those desires come from. The problem is that the boundaries of liberalism will be pushed back by those seeking super-recognition. Even if megalothymia does not lead to war between the Trumps and Kims of this world, it may be repackaged into economic, national, or ethnic competition. If society forbids the megalothymia-driven individual from violent forms of conquest, his or her ambitions are likely to resurface when competing for financial reward, national pride, or public standing. It may be that overt forms of subjugation have been replaced by others that are structurally embedded in society. One example would be economic inequality, which has reached record levels in the United States and elsewhere, restricting the opportunities – and arguably rights – of the poorest in society. Latent competition between individuals therefore poses a constant threat to the delicate arrangement between universal rights and popular sovereignty that we call liberal democracy.

This might not mean the end of the End of History. But, if unfulfilled thymos leads to greater divisions and conflict in the developed world, History still has a long way to go.


[1] F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (The Free Press, 1992), p. 289.

About the author

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Jack Owens recently completed an MPhil in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge. His research interests include European Union foreign policy, economic and commercial diplomacy, comparative politics, and international political economy.
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