You are on page 1of 6

Was Francis Fukuyama the first man to see Trump coming?

| Aeon Essays 16/05/2017, 16*58

!e last hollow laugh


Since Francis Fukuyama proclaimed The End of
History 25 years ago, he has been much
maligned. His work now seems prophetic
Paul Sagar

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Francis Fukuyamas !e End of History and
the Last Man (1992). Rarely read but often denigrated, it might be the most maligned,
unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate
for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the
political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 from Brexit, to Trump,
to the Italian Referendum than anybody else.

!is should sound surprising. After all, Fukuyamas name has for more than two
decades been synonymous with a n-de-sicle Western triumphalism. According to the
conventional wisdom, he is supposed to have claimed that the collapse of the
communist regimes in eastern Europe and the United States victory in the Cold War
meant that liberal capitalist democracy was unambiguously the best form of human

https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming Page 1 of 6
Was Francis Fukuyama the first man to see Trump coming? | Aeon Essays 16/05/2017, 16*58

political organisation possible. To his popular critics sometimes on the Right, but
most especially on the Left !e End of History was thus a pseudo-intellectual
justication for a hyper-liberal capitalist ideology, whose high-water mark was the
disastrous administration of George W Bush. Fukuyamas tagline the end of
history was seized upon by critics as proof that he was attempting to legitimate
neoconservative hubris, cloaking a pernicious ideology with the faade of inevitability.

But (the conventional wisdom continues) hubris was soon followed by nemesis: the
9/11 attacks and the subsequent disaster of the Iraq War showed how wrong any
triumphalist vision of liberal-capitalist world order was. Fukuyama took particularly
heavy ak in this regard. Francis Wheen, in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World
(2004), was typical when he accused Fukuyama of being a shill for neo-con interests.
In reply to the question How do you get ahead by boldly making one of the worst
predictions in social science? Wheen sniped: If you are going to be wrong, be wrong
as ostentatiously and extravagantly as possible. He claimed that Fukuyama
understood what was required to titillate the jaded palate of the chattering classes
and played on this for personal gain.

Yet all of this is incorrect. For a start, it is a gross misreading of !e End of History to
see it as any kind of triumphalism, let alone one subsequently disproved by the rise of
radical Islam, or the stalling of capitalist democracies post-2008. It was also deeply
unfair to Fukuyama himself. Although a public intellectual rather than a traditional
academic, his infamous book displayed an erudition and depth of learning, combined
with ambition and panache, that few tenured academics come close to. He might have
been wrong, but he was never the dummy his critics made out.

T o see this better, its worth elucidating the actual argument of !e End of History.
For a start, Fukuyama never suggested that events would somehow stop
happening. Just like any other sane person, he believed that history (with a small h),
the continuation of ordinary causal events, would go on as it always had. Elections
would be held, sports matches would be won and lost, wars would break out, and so
on. !e interesting question for Fukuyama was about History (with a big H), a term
that, for him, picked out a set of concerns about the deep structure of human social
existence.

With regards to History, Fukuyama advanced a complex thesis about the way
opposing forces play themselves out in social development. Here, he drew inspiration
from the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, via the reinterpretations of
the Russian migr Alexandre Kojve. Hegel (and Kojve) proposed that History is a
process by which contradictions in the ordering of societies work themselves out by
eventually overcoming conict, so as to move to a higher order of integration, where
previous contradictions drop away because the underlying oppositions have been
solved. !e most famous instance of such a dialectical view is Karl Marxs (also made
under Hegels inuence): that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would eventually
move past their combative opposition, via a period of revolution against capitalism,

https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming Page 2 of 6
Was Francis Fukuyama the first man to see Trump coming? | Aeon Essays 16/05/2017, 16*58

into the harmony of communism.

In essence, big-H history was, for Fukuyama, an understanding of human


development as a logical progression (or dialectical working out of contradictions),
generating a grand-narrative of progress, in which each step forward sees the world
becoming a more rational place. For Fukuyama, the long-run development of
humanity was clearly discernible: from the Dark Ages, to the Renaissance, and then
crucially the Enlightenment, with its inventions of secularism, egalitarianism and
rational social organisation, paving the way in turn for democratic liberal capitalism.
!is was the cumulative, and thus far upward-curving, arc of human development.

Fukuyama jettisoned Hegels implausible metaphysics, as well as Marxs idea of


dialectical materialism, as the proposed motor of historical synthesis. In their place,
he suggested that the modern scientic method coupled with technological
advancement, alongside market capitalism as a form of mass information-processing
for the allocation of resources, could explain how humanity had successfully managed
to develop haltingly, but denitely on an upward course of civilisational progress.
!e catch, however, was that we had now gone as far as it was possible to go. Liberal
democratic capitalism was the nal stage of Historical synthesis: no less inherently
contradictory form of society was possible. So, while liberal democracy was by no
means perfect, it was the best we were going to get. Big-H history was over, and we
were now living in post-History. !at was what Fukuyama meant by his infamous
claim that History had ended.

To be sure, many critics see Fukuyamas theory as no more plausible than Hegels
metaphysics or Marxs materialism. And his claim that Western liberal democratic
capitalism represented the necessary end point of the grand Historical working-out of
human existence such that no society more desirable than the US of the 1990s was
possible strikes many as no more likely than Hegels notorious claim that the end of
History was the 19th-century Prussian state (which just happened to pay his salary).

This is what had driven human beings to build cathedrals,


achieve great works of art, found empires and political
movements

But whether Fukuyamas neo-Hegelianism is plausible is not the most interesting


aspect of his thesis. For throughout his analysis, Fukuyama insisted on the centrality
of thymos (the Greek for spiritedness), or recognition, to human psychology: what
!omas Hobbes called pride, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau labelled amour propre. !is
denotes the need to be liked and respected by other people, and to have that
recognition outwardly armed if necessary, extracting it by force. Some human
beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy
for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best and
others will resent them for that, and vie back. !is has the potential to cause a lot of

https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming Page 3 of 6
Was Francis Fukuyama the first man to see Trump coming? | Aeon Essays 16/05/2017, 16*58

trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they dont feel that they are getting it,
they break things and people in response.

It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that
although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be
triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist
democracy could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent
conicts and contradictions it didnt mean that the unruly and competitive
populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that. Late capitalist
modernity might be the highest civilisational point we could achieve, because it
contained the fewest contradictions. But there was strong reason to suspect that wed
slide o the top, back into History, down into something worse.

!is was because, Fukuyama thought, human beings didnt just exhibit thymos, but
also what he termed megalothymia: a desire not just for respect and proportionate
recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious
and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad
thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works
of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction
of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn
vicious, nding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.

What was remarkable about liberal capitalist democracy, Fukuyama thought, was that
it had managed to put a lid on the more destructive expressions of megalothymia,
encouraging citizens to direct such energies into socially harmless expressions, such
as mountaineering or competitive sports. Which might sound like a pleasant
conclusion. Except, Fukuyama thought, that a sanguine response failed to see the
hidden dangers lurking in the end of History.

T he second half of Fukuyamas title, !e Last Man, was a direct reference to the
thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that, although modern society with
its emphasis on truth and transparency had killed God (the future of Western
politics was egalitarian and secular), it had nothing to replace Him with. !e vast
majority of modern human beings would now be small-minded, stunted, pathetic
creatures, possessing no sense of how to achieve greatness, only of how to accrue
petty comforts and easy pleasures in a materialistic, self-obsessed world. In other
words, if megalothymia went out of human life, so would greatness. Only base
mediocrity would remain.

Fukuyama combined Nietzsches idea of the last man with his own diagnosis of
underlying human psychology. His prognosis was that the outlook for post-History
Western society was not good. It was possible that the last men at the end of History
might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs
lying around in the afternoon sun (this was what Kojve predicted). But they might
well go the other way. !ere was every chance that the last men (and women) would

https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming Page 4 of 6
Was Francis Fukuyama the first man to see Trump coming? | Aeon Essays 16/05/2017, 16*58

be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury,


because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would
become bored by what Fukuyama called masterless slavery the life of rational
consumption. !e spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular
democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment especially, we might
now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social
hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed.
(Sound familiar?)

Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war


against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in
its bosom

Fukuyama predicted that such restlessness and resentment would eventually need a
political outlet and when it came, it would be explosive. !e anti-capitalist Left,
however, was a busted ush. Communism was now a known fraud and failure, and
post-Historical people driven by megalothymia would have no truck with its egalitarian
pretensions, or its nakedly tyrannical realities. Far more threatening to the stability of
liberal capitalist societies would be the emergence of demagogic strongmen from the
fascistic Right, cynically feeding narrow self-interest and popular discontent, preying
on human impulses for mastery and domination that the hollow comforts of
consumer capitalism could not hope to appease.

Fukuyama was here looking to a future that still lies beyond our present (although we
might be taking the rst steps towards it). His was a grim warning that if overly
recognition-thirsty individuals lived in a world characterised by peaceful and
prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and
prosperity, and against democracy. More starkly: Modern thought raises no barriers
to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in
its bosom.

Triumphalism this most certainly was not. To be sure, Fukuyamas vision of how
History could be undone does not predict the detailed dynamics of the tumultuous
year that was 2016, or of post-9/11 global politics more generally. (He says little
about China in relation to US hegemony, for example, while displaying a
characteristically early 1990s preoccupation with Japan.) Nonetheless, he perhaps
has a better claim than anybody else to have seen the unrest of 2016 coming, and
where the events set in motion during that dramatic year might yet end up taking us.
While his recent public interventions have not explicitly returned to his themes of the
early 1990s emphasising instead the rise of class as refracted through national
identities and educational opportunity it is nonetheless Fukuyama, and not his
many vocal critics, who now looks entitled to a last hollow laugh.

One nal thing. In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of

https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming Page 5 of 6
Was Francis Fukuyama the first man to see Trump coming? | Aeon Essays 16/05/2017, 16*58

the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to
the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia
who else but a developer like Donald Trump. Fukuyama didnt predict that it would
be that very individual who would crash through the comforts of the end of History,
turning the certainties of the post-Historical world upside down. But he got closer
than most.

REPUBLISH - LICENCE ONLY

aeon.co 21 March, 2017

https://aeon.co/essays/was-francis-fukuyama-the-first-man-to-see-trump-coming Page 6 of 6