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Boredom at the End of History, Part I
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Boredom at the End of History, Part I

Francis Fukuyama takes on those who believe he should recant his "end of history" thesis.

Francis Fukuyama

The last couple of decades have not been good ones for liberal democracy around the world. In its annual Freedom in the World survey, Freedom House has documented declines in aggregate levels of global democracy for each of the past 18 years. This “democratic recession” is characterized not only by the rise of authoritarian great powers like Russia and China, but also by backsliding in many would-be new democracies like Tunisia, Myanmar, El Salvador and Georgia. Most ominous has been the rise of populist nationalist movements in older democracies like the United States, India, and a number of European countries, as well as the apparent loss of confidence in the superiority of democracy as a form of government. 

In the United States, this loss of faith is apparent at both ends of the political spectrum. On the progressive left, Gen-Z activists disdain liberalism as an outmoded doctrine of their parents' or even grandparents' generation, a doctrine that has failed grievously to achieve social justice or rein in corporations. Many of them today will refuse to vote for “Genocide Joe” Biden this coming November. On the right, there is a pining for authoritarian power, coming ever more overtly from the Republican Party’s future candidate for president who tried once to overturn an election. 

This global democratic backsliding has unsurprisingly led to personal consequences for me as the author of my 1989 article “The End of History?” and the book version The End of History and the Last Man which appeared in 1992. In the article, I had noted a global trend towards liberal democracy that had been gathering steam, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.·      ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

A couple of times a week, I'm asked why I was so wrong with my thesis, or when I am going to recant it. My answer has always had several parts. We are clearly living in a very different era from the heady period of the early 1990s; today, it is obvious that illiberal forces are gaining strength in many parts of the world. But the “end of history” was not a prediction about the inevitable spread of liberal democracy to all corners of the earth in the near term. I said explicitly back then that nationalism and religion would continue to exist as alternatives to a liberal order. I rather sought to pose the question of whether there had not been progress in the political evolution of human institutions, not just over recent decades, but over many centuries. Marxists believed that Communism constituted a higher stage of human civilization in that long-term evolution; my argument was that liberal democracy tied to a market economy had no competitors that were in reality superior forms of social order.

What is striking about contemporary democratic backsliding is that few of those people expressing discontent with liberal democracy are able to articulate a clear vision of an alternative social system that is systemically superior. It is true that contemporary liberal democracies have failed to make good on their underlying promise of equal treatment under law. This includes the United States, the oldest such regime. But few people question the underlying principles coming out of the French and American revolutions of a political order based on the twin principles of freedom and equality, or of the equality of freedom. There are indeed alternatives premised on privileging one subgroup of people over others, based on religion or ethnicity or nationality.  But these are hardly systems that will appeal to anyone other than the privileged group in question. 

But if there is no higher alternative than liberal democracy, why are so many people around the world living under such regimes so discontented today? I predicted the emergence of such discontent in my 1992 book, which many of my critics had not bothered to read all the way to the end. 

The last five chapters were about the “last man,” a contemptuous phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche describing the kind of person who emerges at the end of history. The “last man” is a creature without pride or striving to be something better, content with petty pleasures and material well-being. Liberal democracy is very good at producing peace and prosperity, at a scale never before achieved in human history. But not everyone is content to be a “last man.” There is another part of the human psychology that craves something more than material comfort, something that Plato in The Republic labeled thymos. This Greek word can be translated as spiritedness, pride, or anger. It is the aspect of human psychology that wants recognition of one’s intrinsic dignity. Thymos can take the form of anger when one is disrespected and treated as less worthy than others; but it can also take the form of pride in being seen as better than other people. And therein lies the fundamental instability of liberal democracy today.

Certain human beings, in other words, do not want to be last men; they want to struggle to have their dignity recognized, or to have the dignity of other mistreated or marginalized people acknowledged. If they are privileged to be living in an established, wealthy liberal democracy like the United States, they will turn against their own institutions. As I said back in 1992,

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, they then will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy. 

Struggle for struggle’s sake is what happens when we are at the end of history, when the world is actually in pretty good shape, and there are no great causes worthy of risking one’s life. In the “old age of mankind,” all the possible alternatives to liberal democracy have been tried, and none has turned out to be particularly inspiring.  

To be continued...

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

AuthoritarianismDemocracyCulturePolitical PhilosophyReligionUnited States