Since this point has already come up in some of the social media commentary on my new book Identity, I should address from the outset the relationship of this work to what I had written on the end of history. As someone said on social media, “Hard to believe that someone who proclaimed the end of history 25 years ago now gets to publish on identity as a driving factor in politics.”
The fact of the matter is that I had been writing about identity consistently over the years, beginning with my 1992 book. The title of that work was The End of History and the Last Man. My superficial critics did not bother to read the book, and in particular ignored the concluding chapters on the “last man”. The latter, of course, was a reference to Nietzsche’s “men without chests,” that is, the docile, passionless individuals who emerged at the end of history. They had no chests because they had no pride, and that very passionlessness was what would drive a revolt against the modern world.
The fundamental defect of our modern, prosperous democratic world, I said in 1992, was its failure to address the problem of thymos. Thymos is a Greek word usually translated into English as “spiritedness,” which Socrates discusses in Book IV of the Republic. It is the part of the human personality that demands recognition of one’s inner dignity, and the seat of the emotions of pride, anger, and of shame. Thymos, I argued (following G. W. F. Hegel) has been the primary driver of the entire human historical process.
In my 1992 book I distinguished between two manifestations of thymos which I labeled isothymia and megalothymia. The former is the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people, and is the emotion underlying much of modern identity politics. Identity politics began to take off in the 1960s following the major social movements that emerged then, built around the marginalization of different groups in society: racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and so on. Their central demand was equal recognition of their dignity, together with a substantive redress of their social condition.
Megalothymia, by contrast, was the demand of certain individuals to be recognized as superior to others. Liberal democracies were designed in part to contain megalothymia: The American Founding Fathers devised a complex constitutional system of checks and balances to prevent a would-be Caesar from centralizing power, as the historical Caesar had done at the end of the Roman Republic. As James Madison said, ambition was needed to counter ambition. I actually mentioned Donald Trump back in my 1992 book, presenting him as an example of a hugely ambitious individual whose energies had been (it seemed at the time) safely diverted into entrepreneurship. Little did I know back then that this wouldn’t be enough for him.
I stated in The End of History and the Last Man that neither nationalism nor religion were about to disappear as powerful forces in the modern world. As I explain in my new book, both can be seen as thymotic demands for recognition. The stability of modern liberal democracy is threatened by the fact that it does not fully solve the problem of thymos. Modern liberal democracy promised universal and recognition of the dignity of its citizens, but frequently failed to deliver on these promises. Moreover, not everyone is satisfied with universal recognition: People want recognition of their particular identities and the groups to which they feel bound, particularly if they have suffered a history of marginalization. That is what is driving Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements today. Demands for particularlistic recognition can also take the form of nationalists or Islamists defending the dignity of their communities, or of ambitious demagogues like Donald Trump.
For the record, I have obviously modified many of the views I expressed back in 1989-1992. The End of History was written at the mid-point of what Samuel Huntington labeled the Third Wave of democratization, and for the past decade we have clearly been in what my colleague Larry Diamond labels a “democratic recession.” I still believe that history is directional and progressive, and that the modernization process points to liberal democracy as its fullest embodiment. But getting there is harder than I believed back in 1992, and the possibility of institutional decay is ever-present. My two volumes The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay should be seen an effort to rewrite The End of History and the Last Man based on what I now understand about global politics. I will provide a fuller account of this rethinking in a subsequent post.