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Dan Sportiello | Thursday, January 19, 2012

The title of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” is misleading: his 1989 manifesto is far more argument than question, and far more assertion than argument. But the title is misleading for another reason also: the millennium that Fukuyama hails is one beyond history, not one beyond events. Life and love, war and peace, death and taxes would go on as normal. Our world would still be one of economic and military conflict. But ideological conflict — the kind that dominated the history of modernity — would have come to an end.

Fukuyama, echoing Hegel, argued that history is driven forward by the resolution of contradictions — by, that is, the tensions internal to various ideologies. Liberalism — that is, democratic capitalism — is the end of history because it has solved those contradictions. For instance, one obvious contradiction, or tension, that has plagued societies throughout history is that between rulers and ruled. While it is necessary in any sizable society to have some kind of centralized planning for various purposes, such as defense, this leads to a powerful ruling class and a powerless underclass — one full of resentment for the rulers. This contradiction is solved with the introduction of representative government. As it was in our society, the rulers and the ruled become, ultimately, one and the same. A society resolves the tension between rulers and ruled; in other words, its people rule themselves by electing representatives who reflect their ends.

Now that we have achieved representative democracy, Fukuyama asked, are there any contradictions, any tensions, left? If not, we have reached the “end” of history — its goal, politically speaking, where all can live in perfect freedom, equality and happiness. Of course, some have suggested that there are, in fact, serious tensions remaining within democratic capitalism — tensions that rival societies, founded upon rival principles, could solve.

The twentieth century yielded at least two such challengers: fascism and communism. Fascism held that democratic capitalism had a great tension because of, on the one hand, the need of people to have deeper meaning and a sense of communal belonging in their lives and, on the other hand, the refusal of democratic capitalism to settle, or even to debate, questions of deeper meaning. Communism held that democratic capitalism held a great tension because of the antagonism between workers, who provide all of the labor but get little of the reward, and the capitalists, who reap most of the reward but without whom the workers would not know how to direct their labor.

One might — perhaps should — find the existence of these tensions plausible. Whether one does or not, however, the solutions that fascists and communists suggested were as horrific as they were predictable. Fascism tried to collapse the distinction between the nation as state and the nation as community, thus creating the “Volk,” or “people,” while communism tried to collapse the distinction between workers and capitalists by having the workers own in common the factories and farms in which they worked, thus abolishing private property.

As we witnessed, neither of these systems proved workable: the Volk turned out to be an extraordinarily aggressive horror that could only have ended in the nuclear ash in which it did, whereas the abolition of private property led to an extraordinarily stagnant economy that could not compete with that of capitalism. Whether or not the genocide and repression that accompanied fascism and communism were essential to these developments is a question for another time.

In any case, democratic capitalism beat the only challengers around; there is nowhere else for history to go. Or so said Fukuyama in 1989.

Before you laugh too hard, though, let me tell you that after a century of utter madness, we were desperate to believe that it had all meant something. One of my earliest memories, when I was six years old, was seeing on television a statue of Lenin torn down. I remember because of how important it was to the adults; after fifty years on the brink of Armageddon, sanity had returned. All of our sacrifices had been worth it. The world was one. We had won. We could breathe again.

This was a juvenile fantasy, as is clear from hindsight. But it strikes me that, when we lost the hope that characterized the following decade — a hope difficult, now, even to explain — we lost something precious, something perhaps irreplaceable.

These are the musings of one whom history left behind. Make of them what you will.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.