Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man is an essential book on international politics. Published in 1991, it has garnered praise and scorn for its proposed claims. Every book on global politics after that has made a cursory reference to Fukuyama and his thesis.
Written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany and the subsequent end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Fukuyama’s book claims that the interconnected events marked the “end of history”.
Fukuyama’s End of History thesis draws heavily on Western philosophy from Hegel, Kant, Marx, and Nietzsche. The book is divided into five parts: Why we need to discuss the possibility of the end of history; Modern science as a regulator in explaining the directionality of history; A parallel account of the historical process; The Hegelian “desire for recognition” as the motor of history; And the Nietzsche’s last man.
Fukuyama makes two arguments in his thesis. First, there was a victory for liberal democracy. Second, the victory of liberal democracy marks the endpoint of the ideological development of human society. According to Fukuyama, there were two drivers for the linear moment of history. He refers to one as the “logic of modern science” and the other as “the struggle for recognition”—the thymos. On modern science, Fukuyama writes:
Fukuyama borrows the Hegelian notion of the “end of history”. According to Hegel, history had culminated at a decisive moment—a moment in which society’s final, rational form was born. While Fukuyama credits Marx for popularising the term “end of history” with his dialectical materialism (which would one day lead to a classless society), he also critiques Marx for distorting the Hegelian dialectics.
Hegel saw the “dialectic” between the thesis and the antithesis as the driving force behind human history. He maintained that humans strive for basic needs, food, shelter, self-preservation, and the desire for recognition. For Hegel, contradictions are what drove human history forward. And, for Hegel, there would be a point here where there are no contradictions, and that point would be the “end of history”.
Hegel believed that the Battle of Jena (1806) was a culminating point of history. This way of looking at history is unidirectional. Fukuyama draws on Hegelian idealism, through Alexander Kojeve, and defends looking at the Universal History, which he denotes big “H”. This History is linear, but that doesn’t mean that the historical events will not occur.
Fukuyama denoted the occurrence of historical events with a small “h”. But, Fukuyama’s focus throughout the end of history thesis has been on the big “H”. However, much of the criticism Fukuyama has received confuses historical events conflated with Universal History.
Fukuyama highlights two emerging threats to the end of history: religious fundamentalism and nationalism. Although liberal democracy has thrived in competition with non-liberal states and has won, in the “Last Man” section, Fukuyama’s book discusses the dangers that would pervade liberal democracies in the future.
Fukuyama draws on Nietzsche’s Last Man as someone (without a desire or aspiration) who may push the world closer to populism and religious fundamentalism. Liberal democracies may create a society that is stable, peaceful and prosperous. However, it may also lead people to lose their aspirations. The author refers to this as megalothymia, making us Nietzsche’s Last Man. Liberal democracies would produce “men without chests, ” lacking desire and reason.
Thirty years into the publication of this book, it remains one of the most profound defences of liberal democracy. However, things have changed drastically since. China and Russia have risen from their preeminent positions as great powers.
Even as China embraced economic liberalism, it did not seek to democratise. Indeed, China has become autocratic. This is reflected in its approach towards the Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong annexation, and the aggressive claims over Taiwan. There is also an increase in the number of illiberal, strongmen-like leaders worldwide.
We may perhaps be witnessing the resentment of the last men. Fukuyama has tackled some of these issues since. His 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment addresses the growing threat of identity politics to liberal democracies. In the new book, Fukuyama argues that the “desire for recognition” of different identity groups has impeded liberal democracy.
Overall, Fukuyama’s work is an essential addition to international relations. It presents a case for how one can marry philosophy and politics to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a serious book for serious people, thinking of ways to deepen their understanding of liberal democracy.
The End of History and the Last Man. By Francis Fukuyama. New York. The Free Press, 1992. Pp. 418.
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