As we approach the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War, it is easy to get nostalgic for the comparative optimism and even triumphalism that pervaded Western societies. With the cessation of the struggle against the Soviet Union and its allies, a new era of neoliberal prosperity, respect for international human rights law, and general peace were to characterize the global order as humanity moved into the 21st century.
Few books captured the spirit of the time better than Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Released in 1992 and based on his seminal 1989 essay released in The National Interest, Fukuyama argued that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Marxism as a viable alternative, liberal-democracy and free-market capitalism had proven themselves the only viable model for a political-economic organization. This implied it would increasingly be embraced by states and peoples across the globe, who would be eager to be on the right side of the historical dialectic while also not having any real alternative model available to them.
Fukuyama was surprisingly non-dogmatic on this point. He acknowledged that some states and peoples might remain to reject a liberal democratic model of political organization and would strive to exist outside the globalizing power of the market. Some, like North Korea, might persist as outdated products of the previous epochal conflict between Marxism and liberal-democratic capitalism. Others might adopt theocratic regimes like the Ayatollahs of Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan, eager to turn the clock back even further. But these outliers would be increasingly anomalous and unable to generate anything like the universal traction needed to challenge liberal-democracy and the market’s ideological hegemony. This led him to the famous claim that history, as a struggle between different and viable models of political-economic organization, was at an end. Neo-liberal capitalism was now the only game in town.
The Intractability of the Fukuyama Thesis
Fukuyama’s thesis was widely criticized at the time for its apparent triumphalism about the establishment of American dominance, its strange theoretical underpinning drawing on the German philosopher Hegel, and occasionally simply ignorance about the actual complexities orienting world affairs. Some of these critics, notably Samuel Huntington of “clash of civilizations” fame, attacked Fukuyama from the right. But by far the most vociferous critics came from the Left. Marxists like Perry Anderson argued that Fukuyama ignored the persistent and contradictory dynamics of capitalism, and the material impact this would have on future generations. The French philosopher of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, famously agreed, claiming that it was sheer hubris to believe history was ending when so much violence, famine, and inequality, and exclusion persisted.
Some of these left wing criticisms had an impressive heft to them. They observed where Fukuyama missed important practical or theoretical details or criticized him for using sloppy generalizations where the reality was more complicated. And I think it is especially true to observe that the claim that history “ended” was more than a little abstract. For many starving individuals, and those in war-torn countries such as Somalia and Yugoslavia, the idea that history was at an end must have seemed very quaint. It is also true that left-wing alternatives to the neoliberal order never disappeared, though many took on a new post-Marxist form.
But many of the left-liberal criticisms were let down by a fundamental flaw: none of them were able to present a comprehensive and inspiring alternative to liberal-democratic and capitalist model. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has long observed that, despite vociferous criticism, the lack of any comprehensive left-wing alternative implied that most progressives secretly accepted the main thrust of Fukuyama’s thesis. Whether they accepted it or not, most left-liberal critics felt deep down that liberal capitalism was here to stay. Therefore many resigned themselves to one of two options. They either called for the liberal-democratic state and international institutions to soften the worst excesses of capitalism. This was the thrust of the broadly left-liberal and social democratic tradition of Habermas, Axel Honneth and others. Or critics on the liberal left turned to identity politics, hoping to develop a radical critique of the status quo that would mobilize what David Harvey calls various “militant particularisms” which would allow marginalized groups greater opportunity to participate in the liberal capitalist order. Unfortunately, without a systematic alternative, these critics on the “New Left” eventually caved to accepting the status quo; pushing for issues like more female CEOs, greater involvement by minorities in liberal politics etc. While many of these movements were vital in mitigating the worst effects of the status quo, and the struggles they embody must continue, they lacked the theoretical and popular support necessary to broadly challenge neo-liberal global hegemony.
These largely apologist movements have, unfortunately, come to dominate Western popular opinion on what the Left has to offer as an alternative to the neo-liberal world order. This is in spite of the fact that many significant movements developed which to this day offer us clues on what a post-neoliberal ordering might look like. In Mexico (my current home address) the Zapatista movement, established in 1994 in the state of Chiapas, reacted against the neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s by establishing “bottom-up” communes dedicated to participatory government and protecting the rights of aboriginals and women. More recently, Greece’s Syriza party took an initially strong stand against the implementation of structural reform which undermined the welfare state to ensure the payment of debts to the international banking system. And an impressive host of left-wing philosophers, from Roberto Unger to David Harvey, have developed novel and inspiring systematic alternatives to neoliberalism which can provide us with theoretical guidance in the future. But so far none of these movements and intellectual trends have garnered enough popular support and influence to seriously challenge the global hegemony of neoliberal governance.
So, despite criticism, for a long time, Fukuyama’s thesis has remained alive and well. The Left was simply unable to develop a comprehensive and inspiring alternative that could do more than ameliorate the worst impacts of neoliberal governance. These were important struggles, but could not change the status quo. To begin thinking of how we might do that, it is worth looking at another dimension of Fukuyama’s thought which has been rarely addressed and should give us pause. This was his argument that, if history was going to start again, the energy to restart it would come from the right rather than the left. The right would restart history by mobilizing identity to counteract the boredom and lack of meaning which characterized post-historical societies. I think this is precisely what we are seeing today, and demonstrates the need (and potential) of the left to seize the energies now corralled by the right and move them in a more progressive direction.
The Last Man
“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” — so asks the Last Man, and blinks. The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest.”
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Fukuyama was never the triumphalist stooge he has often been caricatured as. Many on the left, despite hostility towards his claims, have been unable to move past his arguments in any substantial way beyond modest calls for reform or lapsing into post-modern skepticism and identity politics. Interestingly enough, it is Fukuyama himself who provided one of the keys to understanding why his central thesis about the end of history would not hold forever. As early as his first essay on the topic Fukuyama observed:
“…I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”
Later in his main book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama drew on Nietzsche’s writings about the “last man” to deepen these arguments. The last man was a person with not a higher orientation in life than his private satisfaction. He was disinterested in the broader culture or any grand projects, largely irreligious, and not especially curious. The fundamental characteristic of the last man was his concern, first and foremost, with “health.” This was Nietzsche´s metaphor for not being concerned with higher goals other than bodily pleasures, especially great struggles over meaning and identity. The last man would be the inhabitant of a post-ideological world; largely comfortable on the outside, but nihilistic at its very core. Fukuyama argued that many on the right, after recognizing this lack of meaning in their lives, might strive to bring history back again to alleviate this sense of meaninglessness and apathy. Of course, this would entail the return of war, ideological conflict, and social division.
The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism
Today, with the emergence of what I call postmodern conservatism, we are witnessing exactly this trend. Postmodern conservatives largely come from the most privileged groups in history, usually belonging to an identity that has historically been dominant in society. But, facing pressure from neoliberal forces of globalization, and the affiliated labor mobility, immigration, and demands for multicultural toleration consonant with liberal rights doctrines, these postmodern conservatives increasingly feel that their dominant place in society is under threat. They see no way to rectify this within the parameters of neoliberal capitalism, and resent its “elite” intellectual defenders who mask their arguments about its merits under the pretense of so-called “objectivity” and “reason.” So postmodern conservatives increasingly reject the very of ideas of objectivity and reason, since they are so affiliated with “elite” liberal groups indifferent to their concerns. Instead, they appeal to the knowledge and values of their given “identity.” This includes claiming that immigrants are destroying the country and committing great acts of violence, that nation-states once dominated by their identity are increasingly becoming “Islamified” by oncoming waves of Muslims, that foreigners in Brussels and around the world are pulling the strings of national policy, and so on. Whether this is true or not from some “objective” standpoint is a matter of indifference to postmodern conservatives. They feel that it is true, and those who align with their identity do so as well.
Postmodern conservatives have increasingly found political spokesmen to articulate their positions. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Victor Orban of Hungary, and the Freedom and Justice Party of Poland, have all mobilized apocalyptic rhetoric about the collapse of traditional values as the traditional identities affiliated with a given nation have disappeared. Postmodern conservative politicians deploy the rhetoric of victimization and resentment to for the retrenchment of power and authority in the hands of heartland citizens-a shorthand for the person who shares our identity because they look, speak, and think like we do. The fact that the identities under attack are far more privileged than the immigrants blamed, and that far from being driven by the people postmodern conservative movements have often been widely authoritarian and anti-democratic in practice, is largely ignored. Because postmodern conservatives already distrust “elite” intellectual opinion, it has been very easy for their political spokesmen to ridicule counter arguments as “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and their proponents as not being in touch with the “heartland.” This is an extremely dangerous development in political culture. All politicians lie at some point; that is not news. What makes postmodern conservatism so dangerous is it is indifferent to the very idea of truth.
The emergence of postmodern conservatism as a new force in history proper indicates the need to take Fukuyama’s arguments about the “last man” more seriously. We are facing a dangerous moment where right-wing populism, from the United States to Italy, is a very real threat to both justice and truth. But it also presents us with new opportunities to challenge that status quo. The anger and resentment channeled by postmodern conservatives stems from a place of legitimate grievances against the harshness and inequities of neoliberal hegemony. These can be channeled in more progressive directions.
We are increasingly faced with a world where inequality grows ever more rampant and where even the minimal safety net offered by the welfare state is breaking down. The political energies unleashed by that can be harnessed by effective left-wing movements who can present real and inspiring alternatives to the status quo. My suspicion would be that we should look more closely at the examples offered by the Zapatista movements, successful leftist democratic parties like Syriza and the theoretical work of thinkers like Unger and Harvey for inspiration. These can help us developed ideas, strategies, and proposals which will do a better job of convincing others that structural change is possible. To my mind, this is the most pressing task we on the Left face as we move deeper into the uncertainties of the 21st century.