A History of the End of History

An obscure foreign policy journal in the summer of 1989 was “outselling everything, even the pornography,” according to a D.C. newsstand operator at the time. With a provocative question atop its cover — “The End of History?” — the summer issue of The National Interest reportedly sold out “virtually overnight” at Harvard Square. Copies of The National Interest — with a circulation of only 6,000, little more than a natsec newsletter for neocon wonks — were suddenly the hottest commodity among the global political elite. In the twilight of pre-internet scarcity, “embassies, governments, and journalists from all over the globe contacted The National Interest, desperate to obtain a faxed copy.” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one such requester. The article almost certainly made its way through the White House, with President Bush’s rhetoric beginning to sound Fukuyaman, leading some D.C. insiders to wonder if the article was issued as a means of “laying the foundation for a Bush doctrine.” The article appears to have been widely read by Soviet elites and likely even by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev himself.

By the time the 1990s began, Fukuyama’s theory was the going way of conceiving of the new post-Cold-War world that was emerging, at least in the West. The US empire hadn’t simply won a geopolitical contest over its rival, asserted Fukuyama, but in so doing had defined the final parameters for human existence. That was the argument in a nutshell. This imperial victory was to be the final one, with nothing more ever emerging to supplant the model of American economics, politics and culture exhibited in 1989. President Bush, beginning in his first State of the Union address in January 1990, would transpose Fukuyama’s thesis to his own formulation of American imperial power. The theory imbued Bush’s call for an invasion of Iraq later in the year, the moment that would commence three decades of unceasing military action in the region, still ongoing. What military historian Andrew Bacevich calls the long “war for the Greater Middle East” saw its first force deployments made under the aegis of the end of history in 1990. The end of history wasn’t an academic flight of fancy; it was a justification for rule. The end of history was to be the beginning of an American planet.

The conquest of capital, too, found renewed justification in the end of history. Fukuyama explained that American-style neoliberal consumer capitalism, not the “flabby” social democracies of Western Europe, would determine the economic reality at history’s end. The end of history, wrote Fukuyama, led “not to…a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” meaning that the increasingly unrestricted neoliberal capitalism championed by the US — newly termed the “Washington Consensus” in 1989 — would constitute the final form of human economy. By the mid-nineties, the European and North American economic zones would begin eroding the old sovereignty of the nation-state at the behest of metanational capital; the former Soviet sphere would undergo its “shock therapy” flash conversion to capitalism; many formerly Soviet states would join the capitalist senate, the World Trade Organization, at its birth in the mid-decade, with the rest all to eventually follow, along with China; the neoliberal model tested in laboratories in the Global South would find new petri dishes in the United States itself; and both American political parties would adopt the neoliberal orthodoxy of unbounded capitalism.

And that is the reason we talk about the “end of history” 30 years later. It’s not because we’re still just really into 19th-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, as interpreted by mid-20th century thinker Alexandre Kojeve, and applied to the post-Cold-War circumstance by a brainy state department official. It was a dense, academic text that more people pretended to have read than actually did. No, we still talk about “The End of History?” because of what it did, how it operated — like an imperial talisman. Or scripture. We still talk about the end of history because the most powerful man in the world, presiding over the first sole, essentially unchecked imperial power the world had ever seen, adopted its premise at the dawn of a globalized world economy under American hegemony. Though rarely discussed as such, the article and its reception was nothing less than an attempt, conscious or not, to update the old “divine right” arguments of sovereign power of empires past for use in the late-20th and early-21st-century. Even in the high-tech haughtiness of late modernity we were still perfectly willing, eager even, to rehabilitate a justification for rule virtually indistinguishable from those decreed by a god.

God was long-since dead in the West, of course, a residue of soft-focus inspirational notions and prosperity-gospel televangelists, but the heft of holy power hadn’t disappeared; it was still available and could be transmuted, Fukuyama showed. A no less inexorable force had been found to replace divinely ordained power: the teleological imperative — a directional, capital-H History. History, in the philosophical sense Fukuyama was using, is a process of moving toward an eventual resolution. And history would be complete when the world resembled America, explained Fukuyama. The end of history didn’t mean that events stopped occurring. Tuesday would still follow Monday and human events would continue, but after 200,000 years or so of human existence we had reached the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” And the resolution of the ideological contest which had theretofore consumed humanity was the particular form of liberal democratic governance and the particular form of consumer capitalism of the United States at the dawn of the 1990s. The end of history looked like America, everywhere. The United States and its inhabitants found themselves past the finish line, assured Fukuyama, and the task remaining was to bring those still in history out of the mire and into the post-historical elysium. The world was such, humanity was such, that it was always becoming American.

The success of Fukuyama’s thesis was served by being precisely on time, just at the moment Soviet collapse appeared imminent, but also by how it lifted prediction just to edge of the oracular. Seen one way, Fukuyama wasn’t saying anything that others hadn’t, but no one had told the tale of American victory in the scope and scale of prophecy. There was a grand poetry to Fukuyama’s story. Others with louder voices, established audiences and broader reach had already made Fukuyama’s general point, that after Soviet failure the dual composition of American governance — liberal democracy and capitalism — remained alone as the final, perfect organization of human society. Just months before Fukuyama’s article, Washington Post syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer declared that “political philosophy is over. Finished. Solved.” To his millions of readers (Fukuyama initially whispered only to a few thousand), Krauthammer wrote:

“The perennial question that has preoccupied every political philosopher since Plato — what is the best form of governance? — has been answered. After a few millennia of trying every form of political system, we close this millennium with the sure knowledge that in liberal, pluralist, capitalist democracy we have found what we have been looking for.”

But Krauthammer was mostly declaring an academic debate settled, an armistice among some provinces of the chin-stroking class. Fukuyama, while himself a member of that ivory-tower set, offered Americans a messianic narrative that fit just inside the bounds of modern credulity. As utterly dry as the article was, it told an epic tale that cleaved close to millenarianism: At the end of a conflict whose stakes were no less than the fiery annihilation of humanity, brought to a peaceful conclusion in the final decade of the final century of the millennium, America emerged as a secular promised land. Humanity had always held the American promise, since Adam in the Garden or however one starts the clock, but it had never been realized, humanity had never flowered, until now. But by eschewing religiosity and instead invoking the authority of modernity’s science and reason, Fukuyama conferred a real and sturdy legitimacy to the airy religious metaphors adorning American exceptionalism: the new Canaan, the city upon a hill.

Fukuyama’s new imperial dogma even came with its own expansionist faith. Like any good divine framework of old, colonization wasn’t presented as the exercise of brute power but as a moral project, one of beneficence, when it wasn’t a function of destiny. The United States and its citizens had reached the end of history, but they were simply the vanguard. The end of the end of history would be ultimately achieved when the rest of the globe was Americanized, brought into the new world Americans had found.

And, so, in a moment of breathtaking coincidence, a member of the United States government found that the state and structure of human society at the end of history looked precisely like the United States. And by some wild fluke, Washington’s closest NATO allies were those within striking distance of history’s end. The parts of Europe to abandon social democracy and the residue of their socialist tendencies would first join the great peace. The relative distance to the end of history roughly corresponded to each nation’s diplomatic proximity to Washington, offered the official in the US State Department, the very part of the government tasked with managing diplomacy. Believe it or not, an American State Department official’s conception of how history sorted humanity mapped precisely onto how Washington viewed the globe, its power and prospects.

Americanization would be achieved in several ways, offered Fukuyama. It could be “grafted onto” societies after war; societies could elect to “follow in the footsteps of the United States”; while others would just be swept toward history’s end as by a flood. For some, simply exposure to Western cultural products will be what starts them on the path out of history. Fukuyama describes “Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran” as harbingers of history’s end. Not only does destiny demand everyone adopt America’s unique form of economics and political liberalism, but destiny also demands the apparent erasure of non-Western culture, implies the article. Fukuyama seems to imagine everyone in an American-style mall at the end of history listening to American rock music. It’s a not-so-subtle revelation of how much Fukuyama’s thesis is an update on imperialism, a project to remake the world completely in America’s image. It was American exceptionalism made maximal: there is no exception to Americanism.

The Soviets understood the implications. Genrikh Alexandrovich Trofimenko, one of the top Soviet scholars of US foreign policy at the time, explained that the wider American adoption of Fukuyama’s narrative of world-historical ideological triumph paved the way to “push the Soviet Union into a corner, showing that it has no way out other than to succumb to whatever demands the United States and the West might make.” Trofimenko saw imperial prerogative and capitalist expansion dolled up in lofty philosophical garb: “Some sophisticated members of the US academic elite seem desperate, however, to prove the triumph of the American idea [italics in original], but not in such a primitive way as putting forth the contention about winning the Cold War. Hence, the well-publicized, brilliant article…by Francis Fukuyama about the end of history.”

It was transparent to Soviet leadership, too, who saw actionable American post-Cold-War chauvinism in the notion that one side’s idea had prevailed. The December 1989 Malta summit made clear the Soviets’ unease. After shockingly constructive agreement and cooperation on reductions in every aspect of the two empires’ armed forces, everything from nuclear and chemical weapons to naval and infantry force sizes, the two camps found sudden contention when the conversation turned toward the victory of the American and Western idea. It was the most animated moment during the summit, with the one-on-one between the two leaders suddenly becoming a tangle of cross-talk from aides. “When someone says he has the final truth you have to expect trouble,” charged Gorbachev. After defenses from Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, both claiming an innocence in the notion of the primacy of “Western values,” Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze implies that “Western values” are only a sort of code for Western *strength*. Gorbachev likens the conquest of “Western values” to what Washington had decried from the Soviets during the Cold War: “You used to make similar accusations against the USSR — the export of revolution.” Gorbachev, too, saw the Fukuyaman argument (though Fukuyama and his thesis remain unnamed in the exchange) as something of a religious one. “Let us not make it a theological debate,” he concludes about Cold War’s conclusion. “[Theological debate] led to religious wars and we should have learned from that.”

Gorbachev was a bit more blunt in a phone call with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney just ahead of Malta. Complaining of what he already saw as the imposition of American hegemony into Eastern Europe, Gorbachev said, “The Americans have an itch: to give everybody advice how to live. This for Americans is like an illness — AIDS — so far there is no treatment for it.” He continued, “The habits of the global policeman are still very strong, also strong is the desire to impose their opinion.” The Canadian leader commiserated: “The Americans see the world in a very simple way: free enterprise, capitalism, the American flag, McDonald’s.”

It was just weeks later, in January 1990, that that avatar of American capitalist power, McDonald’s, pierced the Iron Curtain and advanced into the very heart of global communism. The most recognizable symbol of American capitalist expansion landed in the center of Moscow like beachhead. The first McDonald’s in the communist half of the globe opened in Pushkin Square on January 31, allowing Muscovites to take a quick trip to the end of history, which was to be, Fukuyama promised, wallpapered with brand logos and “omnipresent signs advertising the products.” The New York Times reported how Muscovites “proudly took their logo-ridden refuse with them to show they were pioneers.” McDonald’s became first global corporate logo to fuse the communist half of the world into the capitalist market overseen by Washington. Later in the decade, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman would describe that great Pax Americana with McDonald’s as the envoy of peace, coining his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”: “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”

While McDonald’s christened the communist hemisphere for capital, President Bush was preparing to give his first State of the Union address that night. Dismissing the entreaties of Gorbachev, Bush now spoke in Fukuyaman tones, describing an Americanized world after the United States ascension to sole global empire. He announced “the beginning of a new era in the world’s affairs” to open the speech. In the new epoch of humanity, America could be, and should be, everywhere: “America, not just the nation but an idea, [is] alive in the minds of people everywhere.” Anyone could become American and make America happen where they stood, in Fukuyama’s “Japanese department stores” or in “Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran.” Like Fukuyama, Bush described empire, only in a more florid style. For Bush, like Fukuyama, it was the continued expansion of American power, without cease: “As this new world takes shape, America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom — today, tomorrow, and into the next century.” A “widening circle of freedom” with America in the center is, of course, only a euphemism — and barely so — for empire.

In his call for an American-led “New World Order” later in 1990, Bush would again speak in end-of-history terms: “A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known.” It was Fukuyama with a Biblical flourish: the “hundred generations” and “thousand wars” were a quasi-prophetic way of naming Fukuyama’s history, or, in Bush’s parlance, “the span of human endeavor.” Pax Americana arguments had already been made, but not until now was it also presented as secular millenarianism, as directed by a higher power: the historical imperative, no more open to argument than a god.

The millennial timing was not lost on Bush, who spoke to the United Nations in October 1990 to gather the window-dressing of a coalition for the imminent American invasion of Iraq: “The year 2000 marks a turning point, beginning not only the turn of the decade, not only the turn of the century, but also the turn of the millennium.” Again, Bush deployed the Fukuyaman notion of a latent Americanness always present in humanity but not revealed until this millennial season: “And so, let it be said of the final decade of the 20th century: This was a time when humankind came into its own.” Humankind “came into its own” when it came under American hegemony.

In early 1992, with the Soviet Union officially dissolved and awaiting its capitalist “shock therapy,” history looked more over than ever. Fukuyama’s 1989 question “The End of History?” hit bookstores now in the declarative. The End of History and the Last Man would spend much of the spring on the best-seller list. In his final State of the Union address, President Bush, too, would more confidently replace his tentative, quasi-religious rhetoric with pronouncements more suggestive of divine providence. This moment of American dominance, “a deeply promising time…in the history of man on earth,” had come about by “changes of almost Biblical proportions,” Bush told the nation — and the world. American dominance came “by the grace of God.” Gone was any pretense or euphemism now: “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America.” In his book-length explication, Fukuyama confessed that his notion of an end of history was borrowed from Christian eschatology, or the final “working out of God’s will on earth.” Fukuyama’s entry into the initially Christian genre of “Universal History” was, he admitted, the latest in “attempts to write secular versions” of directional histories leading toward end states. Together, Fukuyama and Bush came most of the way toward saying that global American dominance was God’s will.

Neither the end of history nor a Pax Americana ad infinitum would come; history would continue in tension. But that is not say that Fukuyama wasn’t correct, at least partially. What he called the “universal homogeneous state” that would emerge as history’s end point did arrive — again, at least partially. Fukuyama was clear that metanational capital and corporate brands and would homogenize the globe, along with political liberalism. Fukuyama continually stressed that consumer capitalism would be as important as liberal democracy in bringing about a homogenized humanity at history’s end: “We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.” It wasn’t simply liberalism but also “a truly universal consumer culture that has become both a symbol and a underpinning of the universal homogenous state.” The homogeneity of consumer capitalism would constitute the bulk of one’s lived experience at the end of history.

What initially seemed the easier half of Fukuyama’s case to argue, that liberal democracy would define the end state of ideological progression, might end up being the part of the Fukuyama’s theory that falters. Instead, the other half of history’s end, capitalism, is thriving even where democracy is not. The world’s largest nation demonstrates that authoritarian capitalism might be a viable model going forward. China is aggressively pursuing expansion of its model of authoritarian capitalism into Africa and across Asia — even into Europe via the outrageously ambitious Belt Road Initiative. In China, along with the many places democracy and liberalism is in regression — e.g., the United States, Brazil, India, Russia and much of Europe — the capitalist order still reigns. In many places, the nationalist and authoritarian-leaning politicians are the candidates of capital. In the 2020 US election, for instance, President Trump will likely be capital’s candidate versus any Democratic opponent chosen from that party’s left flank, and the country will no doubt be rent even further apart along its widening fault lines, a turn toward tumult we see menacing much of the globe. The old tensions remain and new ones loom. History is less over than ever.

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Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine

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Matt Pulver

Matt Pulver

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine

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