No end to history?

While liberal democracy may be the least imperfect system yet known to man, it is not very clear whether mankind will pursue this desirable destination without long and costly detours.

Twenty-two years ago, American political scientist and author, Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama wrote a treatise on western liberal democracy called The End of History and The Last Man. Fukuyama wrote with authority and confidence and argued that the dominance of western liberal democracy may well signal the arrival of a ‘final’ type of government – an end to the historical evolution of political systems.


Fukuyama claimed to have been inspired by Alexendre Kojeve, a Russian-French philosopher of Hegelian persuasion – who coined the term the “End of History”.  Kojeve’s use of the phrase referred to the idea that ideological history in a limited sense had ended with the French Revolution and there was no longer a need for violence to establish liberal values. Fukuyama borrowed the phrase and expanded its use to cover both political (democratic western) and economic (market-based) systems.  The original article on which Fukuyama’s book is based was written just as the Berlin wall fell in 1989. In that context it is understandable as a triumphal book that celebrates the victory of the western democracies over the communist Soviet Union. Fukuyama’s book was misunderstood to be a book that celebrates American supremacy, but he himself says, “I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States.   The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.”

Fukuyama’s seminal book provoked a lot of critical analysis. Samuel Huntington’s famous 1993 article in the Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “The Clash of Civilizations” and a subsequent book of similar name were direct responses to Fukuyama’s work.  Huntington argued that the temporary clash of ideologies in these last two centuries of human existence have once again been replaced by an ancient clash of civilisations. In Huntington’s view, the dominant civilisation of the time lends its form of government as a model for all. Huntington believes that while the age of ideology had ended, the world has only reverted to a normal state characterized by cultural conflict. The primary axis of conflict, he believed, would be along cultural and religious lines. Fukuyama’s book also attracted criticism from communists who believe that the role of the market had been overstated.

The events of September 11, 2001, the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic rise of the East, have all provided grist for the mill critical of Fukuyama’s original thesis. Fukuyama himself did not argue that it would be a straight line. His view simply was that Western liberal democracy had won the race.   There would be tests to the system and potentially long pauses in evidence but eventually, he believed, we would return to liberal democracy as the dominant system.

It is unclear (yet) whether Fukuyama’s theory is flawed or whether we are indeed in a pause – but it appears from around the world that nationalism, authoritarianism and alternatives to western liberal democracy have been rising for some time.   With hindsight, the events of 9/11 appear to have been a fundamental fork in the road.  Examples of authoritarianism abound – Turkey, Russia, Egypt and China – to name just a few.

In Turkey, the Justice and Development party (AK Party) came to power in 2002 with a thumping majority. Since then, the AK party has gradually consolidated its power and its strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an elected authoritarian, with brutal put-downs of protests, media censorship and a general disregard for the constitution.  The sham of ‘elected’ but in actuality appointed officials in Russia has made its way from the Federal to State and Local Governments. Vladimir Putin’s control of not just Government but also of all large companies like Rosneft, Sberbank and Gazprom has left much of the energy and financial economy in the hands of a small group of people who run Russia today.  There is a widespread belief that this group also indirectly controls the media – both traditional and new.  The latest such takeover appears to be that of Facebook Russia. This small group, all loyal to Putin is the Siloviki – members of the security apparatus when Putin was in the KGB.  This illiberal control of state, commerce and media combined with a few liberal measures (like a flat tax) has resulted in the coinage of the word ‘Putinism’ to characterise it. China’s new president, Xi Xingping, has consolidated power in a manner that is unprecedented in the “Central Party Committee” style of managing China that has hitherto governed the country. In China too, there are elements of liberalism that include a  crackdown on corruption (remember Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang), but the primary objective is consolidation of power.  This consolidation has been accompanied by a severe crackdown on the social media including arrests of famous bloggers. The democracy protests in Hong Kong, for instance, are fully blacked out in Beijing. In Egypt, the Arab spring had lead to hope that a liberal, modern democracy would replace an army-sponsored strongman.  With alternating hope and despair, Egypt has returned to what it knows best – an army strongman again.  Some scholars worry that in India, the world’s largest democracy, there is danger of majoritarianism if not authoritarianism.

And all this in nation-states that have constitutions and are governed by a general rule of law. Beyond, the rise of non-State actors has been equally spectacular. Political order is itself being tested by new religion based organisations such as Islamic Society of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the shadowy Khorasan Group that have a pan-Islamic agenda. Off-shoots of the al-Qaeda like the Harakat al-Shabbab that operates in eastern Africa, Ansar al-Sharia that operates in Yemen and the Asbat al-Ansar that operates in Lebanon are spreading terror and chaos in the regions that they operate in.  The promise of the Arab spring has been consumed by the despair of stateless extremists acting with deadly force without regard to national boundaries.

Appropriately, Fukuyama has written the first book of a three-part series on The Origins of Political Order in 2011.  The second book in the series, Political Order and Political Decay, was recently released. These books discuss with great rigour and detail how societies build strong, impersonal and accountable institutions. They describe how path dependent the history of institutions and liberal democracies have been. It may be Fukuyama’s nod to Huntington that while liberal democracy may be the least imperfect system yet known to man, it is not very clear whether mankind will pursue this desirable destination without long and costly detours. These detours may eventually get us to a point where many of the world’s nations are liberal and democratic. Then again, they may not. Time will tell. History, as they say, never really ends.

Photo: Nicholas Raymond