Where are we 25 years after ‘the end of history’?

Does Francis Fukuyama’s idea that ‘liberal democracy’ has triumphed still hold true?

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay 'The End of History' [EPA]

At a recent conference on the future of “liberal democracy” in Skopje, almost everyone was mentioning Thomas Piketty and his latest book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The book’s focus on the growth of inequality in relation to “liberal democracy” was a particularly interesting point in the conference discussions. When it was released this year, the volume provoked quite a lot of controversy and produced a great number of discussions in media and academia.

If there is any other book that had such a remarkable impact on the global economic, political and even philosophical debates on democracy and capitalism during the last two decades, it is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Actually, it was the essay “The End of History” published in 1989. The book probably had the same fate as Piketty’s: Everyone was talking about it, but no one really read it.

As we all know by now, “the end of history” was not meant to be the real end of history, but the end of competing ideologies. For Fukuyama, liberal democracy triumphed as the only player in town. Many have criticised this hypothesis, but in recent years even his fiercest enemies admit that today we have all become Fukuyamists. As Fredric Jameson put it succinctly, “today it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism”.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to meet Fukuyama personally in Paris and to challenge his thesis on the “end of history”. Just a few months after the Arab Spring and just a few weeks before the July 2011 Norway attacks would happen, Fukuyama claimed there are some serious reasons why liberal democracy might not be the fate of all humanity. First, there was the threat of something he called political decay, the collapse of democratic institutions in the long run. Secondly, there was China.

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When I asked him whether terrorism posed any threat to Western liberal democracies, he answered that the threat of terrorism was overrated and that the biggest threat to liberal democracy was represented by the rise of China.

Our conversation was published by a Croatian weekly, and Fukuyama was publicly denounced by the Chinese ambassador in Zagreb. He even went so far as to call Fukuyama a “banana man – yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. According to the ambassador, Fukuyama was just another Western intellectual who criticises China’s development. He went on to say that China was not a threat, but a friend, whose achievements benefit other nations.

What both Fukuyama and the Chinese ambassador failed to point out in their argument was the crisis which Western democracies find themselves in. In other words, the future might not be liberal democracy but precisely a regime type resembling China’s – a strong authoritarian state, without much political participation by its citizens. It would be a regime with efficient capitalism but no democracy.

To see this direction, it is enough to look at the results of the recent European elections and the rise of the far right. But a much more serious prophet of this new trend is, of course, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who in the summer of 2012 declared that we need a new economic system in Europe.

“Let us hope”, he said, “that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival”. Then he compared the Hungarians to “semi-Asian people” who can only be united by force.

And it would be wrong to single out just Hungary. All Western countries are dangerously sliding in the direction of this new type of political system introduced for the sake of economic survival. We still believe that we live in a democracy even though there are clear signs suggesting otherwise: mass surveillance, violent suppression of protests, from the 2005 French riots to the 2011 England riots, attacks on minorities, expanding military industrial complex, etc. In Western democracies, we have the freedom to choose all sorts of products or lifestyles, but this does not necessarily guarantee our personal and political freedom.

Twenty-five years after his famous article, Fukuyama is now again claiming there is no serious threat to the-end-of-history hypothesis, since mass protests that continue to erupt from Tunis to Kiev to Istanbul demand more liberal democracy. I am not sure whether they are really demanding the markets, bailouts and austerity that liberal democracy has brought to some countries.

Many of these protest movements (military rule, new old leaders, etc), regardless of what their outcome was, aren’t really fighting for the type of democracy enslaved by the free market. Instead, they are fighting for, as the Spanish Indignados described it, democracia real: horizontal democracy with general assemblies, participatory budgeting, workers’ councils, etc, and a social state that would provide for people’s basic needs through public health-care, free education, social security, etc, instead of exploiting them and leaving them behind.

It is obvious that even 25 years after the announcement of “the end of history”, we still haven’t reached it. At the same time, authoritarian capitalism is not contained within China’s borders any more and threatens to erupt and spread across the world. The hope is that different protest movements and even political parties which question the status quo of liberal democracy, will be able to counter this worrying trend.  

Srecko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. His latest books include “After the End of History. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement” (2013) and “What Does Europe Want?” (2013), co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and translated into ten languages.