Thirty years ago, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the end of the Cold War was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” When he proclaimed the “End of History” he was not predicting the future; he was proclaiming a verdict: History had shown that liberal democracy was the most successful form of government by virtually every conceivable measure. History had ended in the sense that we had reached an answer to one of the key questions of the purpose (or telos, to be philosophically specific) of human civilization, one that had animated enlightened human curiosity at least since Plato wrote his Republic.
Fukuyama’s argument—not the caricature of it—is as persuasive and powerful as ever. His contention that there is no conceivable ideological rival to liberal democracy still rings true: Despite the rise of China, the rise and fall of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the return of Russian belligerence, and the waves of populism and nationalism sweeping the globe, there is no alternate, comprehensive set of political and economic ideas poised as a rival to liberal democracy with universal aspirations and global appeal.
If Fukuyama missed anything, it may be that we are witnessing the marriage of all three of the potential challengers to the End of History he identified: the union of historical nostalgia with the forces of religious fundamentalism and nationalism. Some combination of these phenomena seems to be driving a wide array of challenges to the liberal democratic order, including Vladimir Putin’s imperial revanchism and the enduring appeal of jihadi and nationalist dreams. Post-historical ennui fuels and drives these forces. They act as parasites on liberalism: simultaneously dependent on and undermining the liberal order. The solution may be for the liberal state to step back and allow greater room for the pre-political institutions of society—the family, religious institutions, and civil society—to flourish and meet the spiritual needs of human beings. Only institutions like these can defang the natural human impulse toward political and religious fanaticism.
Fukuyama’s seminal essay engaged with the great debates of political theory, not futurism, much to the consternation of critics who wanted to dismiss his essay as a dressed up, secularized version of End Times apocalypticism. Fukuyama was also careful to qualify his argument: the End of History does not mean “there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs‘ yearly summaries of international relations.” He did not suggest that every state would immediately convert to liberal democracy: “At the end of history, it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.”
Nor does the End of History mean the end of war: “This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se. . . . terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda.” Conflict would continue and many states would remain within “History.” “Russia and China are not likely to join the developed nations of the West as liberal societies any time in the foreseeable future,” he wrote, while the developing world “remains very much mired in history, and will be a terrain of conflict for many years to come.” Not all states will recognize or welcome the End of History, in large part because liberalism threatens the power and status of illiberal elites, who are almost always rich men from dominant ethnic or religious groups.
Fukyama’s essay, then, left plenty of room for the continuation of geopolitical competition and political rivalry. In 1989, he specifically highlighted two broad social and political movements that might motivate enduring conflict: nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Though Fukuyama’s insight into the future was imperfect, it is striking how familiar the broad outlines look.
Fukuyama was relatively sanguine about nationalism in his original essay: “Since the Second World War, European nationalism has been defanged and shorn of any real relevance to foreign policy, with the consequence that the nineteenth-century model of great power behavior has become a serious anachronism.” His relaxed view came in part from a distinction he drew between nationalism as “mild cultural nostalgia,” which he recognized was still pervasive, and nationalism as a “highly organized” and “elaborately articulated doctrine,” which he believed had been discredited. He also argued that nationalism was not a response to liberalism so much as to liberalism’s failures: If nations were truly independent and self-governing, as both nationalists and liberals wanted them to be, the former would not need recourse to illiberal and dangerous forms of nationalism.
Fukuyama may have been right in 1989, but his view of nationalism does not describe the world of Vladimir Putin, Victor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Jair Bolsonaro, much less Marine La Pen. Nationalism is vibrant, and it seems to be far more than “mild cultural nostalgia.” Especially worrying is the return of anti-liberal nationalism in embryonic liberal democracies like Hungary, Poland, and Brazil, which seems to falsify Fukuyama’s belief that liberalism would defang nationalism. Even the more benign (by comparison) nationalism of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, or Xi Jinping is certainly relevant to foreign policy in the 21st century and may yet grow its fangs back.
However, even in 1989 Fukuyama seemed to recognize the potential for a nationalist resurgence. He wrote of Russia, over a decade before the rise of Putin, that, “There has always been a very strong current of great Russian chauvinism in the Soviet Union. . . . [U]ltranationalists in the USSR believe in their Slavophile cause passionately, and one gets the sense that the fascist alternative is not one that has played itself out entirely there.” Putin’s obvious affection for Soviet glory—for example, by resurrecting the musical score from the old Soviet anthem as the new Russian one—is a textbook example of Fukuyama’s historical nostalgia.
If Fukuyama overlooked anything, it is that nationalist nostalgia would not be limited to the Russian case. For example, regarding China, Fukuyama argued that economic liberalism had decisively altered China’s trajectory. Reforms since the late 1970s “have seen an almost total discrediting of Marxism-Leninism as an economic system,” and “the People’s Republic of China can no longer act as a beacon for illiberal forces around the world.” Events around the world seemed to show that “political liberalism has been following economic liberalism, more slowly than many had hoped but with seeming inevitability,” clearly suggesting that China would eventually enter a democratic transition. Yet the actual track record of the past 30 years suggests that as China has grown richer, it has grown more nationalist, not more liberal.
Fukuyama seems not to have recognized the tension between some parts of his argument. He dismisses the idea that post-Soviet Russia would return to a Czarist or imperial foreign policy, but later he describes the power of nostalgia and historical yearning to drive states back into the realm of history. Such nostalgia is exactly what led Putin to adopt a neo-Czarist and neo-imperial foreign policy in Russia’s near-abroad over the past decade. And Putin has periodically tried to turn his authoritarian regime into something more than a crude quest for the glory of Russian arms, approaching an ideology of opposition to liberalism that he seeks to export to the developing world. If successful, the effort has the potential to turn nationalism into a universal alternative to the End of History in the 21st century.
The case of “religious fundamentalism”—the second challenge Fukuyama foresaw—is more complex. Fukuyama recognized that religion had a staying power and a relevance to world affairs often overlooked in more traditional analysis:“The revival of religion in some way attests to a broad unhappiness with the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies.” Fukuyama’s appreciation for religion is part of why he is able to recognize the danger of post-historical ennui and yearning (more on which below).
While he argued that most religions seemed to have made their peace with modernity and were unlikely to pose challenges to liberalism, he correctly noted that, “In the contemporary world, only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative.” Ultimately, however, the theocratic (or jihadi) alternative “has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance.” He dismissed terrorism, regardless of its motivation: “Our task is not to answer exhaustively the challenges to liberalism promoted by every crackpot messiah around the world, but only those that are embodied in important social or political forces and movements, and which are therefore part of world history.”
Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were indeed crackpot messiahs (more accurately, crackpot sheiks and caliphs). But it seems unsatisfying to dismiss their movements as not a true part of world history just because their appeal was never universal. Fukuyama explained that he was only interested in the “common ideological heritage of mankind,” which is why he could say that religious fundamentalism and terrorism were not part of “world history.”
But the importance of al-Qaeda and the Islamic States lies precisely in the challenge they have posed to the very ideal of universalism: They came close to unifying the world through their opposition to it. Especially given Fukuyama’s insistence that ideological evolution is dialectically driven and dependent in part on opposition to an Other, jihadism deserves recognition as a sort of ultimate Other, an exact nemesis of liberalism, which, like fascism, helped prove and vindicate the superiority of liberalism by holding up a display of its opposite.
The Downside to the End of History
If nationalism and religious fundamentalism fail as competitors to liberalism, then perhaps we can celebrate the End of History after all? Interestingly, Fukuyama appears to have had no such intent. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of the End of History is that it was meant as a triumphalist celebration of liberalism. Fukuyama’s essay is sometimes remembered as arrogant or unseemly, a deluded fantasy written in the heady atmosphere of the early 1990s. It is thought to be vaguely distasteful, like spiking the ball after the Cold War victory.
In fact, Fukuyama wrote in the late 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, much less the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Gulf War. He had no knowledge of how imminent events would propel his essay, make it famous, and turn the headline (minus the question mark) into a meme. His essay contained no triumphalist language and was riddled with caveats and qualifications. Most importantly, Fukuyama concluded on a profoundly downbeat note, one that, 30 years later, is almost shocking for its pessimism and, unfortunately, for its ring of truth.
“The end of history will be a very sad time,” he wrote, “I have the most ambivalent feelings” about it. He lamented the passing of the heroic age of mankind: “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by. . . the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” History had ended in the prefabricated, conformist lanes of suburbia. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
Fukuyama was echoing the critics of modernity who lamented the rise of the bourgeoisie for its lack of class and culture. A century and a half earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that, “Variety is disappearing from the human race,” because of the rise of liberal democracy, “the men of each country, more and more completely discarding the ideas and feelings peculiar to one caste, profession, or family, are all the same getting closer to what is essential in man, and that is everywhere the same.”
In those conditions of bland sameness, “All those turbulent virtues which sometimes bring glory but more often trouble to society will rank lower,” in liberal society. For Tocqueville, there was a real danger in the loss of those “turbulent virtues”: “What frightens me most is the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.”
The Challenge of the 21st Century
Fukuyama believed Tocqueville’s fear had come to pass, which is why he warned of “a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed,” the third challenge to the End of History. It may be that humanity is incapable of existing without struggle. “Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.” Most presciently, Fukuyama suggested that “this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history going again.”
Indeed, this post-historical ennui is almost certainly a driving force in the perennial appeal of nationalism and religious fanaticism, a connection Fukuyama seems to have missed—though he does not miss it in his most recent book, Identity, where he discusses megalothymia at some length. Post-historical ennui is driven by a yearning for recognition and heroism, a nostalgia for a time when men could do great deeds (and it does seem to be mostly men who dream dangerous dreams of glory and grandeur). The powerful psychological forces Fukuyama identified seem to attach themselves, almost inevitably, to the institutions of religion and the state, giving us the forms of religious and political fanaticism that threaten the end of history.
Nationalism and religious fundamentalism are twin reactions to the conditions of modernity: They are both forms of political theology that seek to subsume all of our loyalties under the umbrella of a single, overarching, organic polity. There is a reason why nationalists, demagogues, and fanatics invoke historical myths and symbols of the past for their cause. Nationalists view liberalism and its extension in “globalism” as a solvent of national identity, a rejection of their unique history, heritage, and culture. Putin reenacts the most resonant of the Soviet and Czarist past. Jihadis see what liberal modernity looks like and reject it as degraded and impure; instead, they strive to resurrect what they suppose (inaccurately) to be the historical epoch of the Prophet Mohammad as the moment when Islam was purest. Even Donald Trump wants to make America great again.
History tells a story of who we are, a story that is universally a story of conflict, striving, and even violence. If you tell people that history has ended and there is little to strive for, you deprive them of a crucial source of identity and sense of purpose. Fukuyama’s pessimistic insight is that humans will reestablish some foundation for identity and purpose, even when that means plunging back into conflict and History, with a capital Hegelian “H.”
We might see the same psychological phenomenon in the United States at the individual level: What else explains scores of young white men who seem driven to commit seemingly senseless mass shootings? Modernity has passed them by and liberal society tells them the martial virtues they grew up learning about in movies and history books, and which they feel vital to their identities, are worse than useless; they are dangerous. The end of history may be threatened as much by the nihilistic Nietzschean anarchist as by nations and religions in the thrall of zealotry.
Was Fukuyama Right?
If liberal democracy is so spiritually empty as to provoke a return to the nationalist and religious fantasies of the past, or the anarchism of the future, in what sense was Fukuyama right? How can we share in the assessment that liberal democracy and market capitalism are the best arrangement of political and economic institutions, that they are “the final form of human government”?
While liberal democracy has experienced setbacks in the past 30 years, it is hard to improve on Winston Churchill’s verdict: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Nothing in the past 30 years—or 30 centuries—offers a persuasive rebuttal. Every alternative to liberalism amounts to a claim that some humans have an inherent right to rule over other humans, usually because of the supposed superiority of their race, their god, their martial virtue, piety, patriotism, or something else. No matter how the argument is dressed up, it is utter nonsense. That argument has persistently resulted in societies that are less free, less prosperous, less vibrant, and, essentially, less human.
The great insight of liberalism is that human beings—all of them—have inherent dignity and worth by virtue of nothing other than simply being human. It is easy to forget that most societies in most of the world across most of human history disagreed with this insight. And so it bears repeating: No one is inherently superior by virtue of birth, lineage, rank, wealth, or any other attribute to merit special treatment by the government or special access to power or wealth. Liberal political and economic arrangements are built around this insight.
This basic starting point is what distinguishes liberalism from monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, theocracy, and other forms of hierarchical, illiberal government. Even liberalism’s harshest critics, such as Catholic philosopher Patrick Deneen, who recently advanced an argument about Why Liberalism Failed, do not deny these claims or advance an alternate set of ideas about human worth and dignity. In this, Fukuyama was completely correct: Societies founded on the equal and inviolable dignity of all humans are superior to those that are not.
Preserving the End of History
If liberal democracy is, for better or for worse, still the best political alternative we have, is there a solution to its failings and its current crisis? Unfortunately, Fukuyama left this question unanswered in his original essay. Thirty years on, the need is all the more pressing to reform liberalism and strengthen it against its challengers. He recognized that the “emptiness at the core of liberalism is most certainly a defect in the ideology,” but admitted that “it is not at all clear that [the emptiness] is remediable through politics.”
There is at least one easy answer: Defending the liberal society from its enemies still requires heroic virtues. War is still common. If the terrorist attacks of 2001 or a war with North Korea could still happen at the End of History, liberal societies will still need to cultivate the martial virtues. The defense of liberal order should be seen as a noble, even heroic pursuit; happily, it is also a safety valve, giving useful employment to those dissatisfied with the mundane opportunities afforded by bourgeois society.
This, however, cannot serve as a complete solution to the spiritual emptiness of liberalism. It does not answer the needs of the great mass of the civilian population. More importantly, it amounts to sustaining liberalism on bloodlust against its enemies—which, if let loose to ramble, will cut a direct pathway to nationalism and zealotry, not to any alternative to them.
The dilemma is that our biggest political problems have pre-political roots. This can be a hard truth for statesmen and voters to accept. As children of the Enlightenment, we are accustomed to moving directly from diagnosing a problem to prescribing a solution, firm in the faith that human reason can understand and ameliorate the world’s ills. Especially when confronting public or political problems, we instinctively look to the state to help fund, coordinate, and administer our solutions because, in the Enlightenment conception, that is what the state is for.
How might this be a problem? If our biggest political problems have pre-political roots, when the Enlightenment state steps in to help solve those problems, the state is no longer merely seeking to uphold order, administer justice, or overcome collective action problems; it is instead seeking to effect permanent change in the human condition. In effect, it becomes a substitute religion—and this is true not only of the obvious political religions of fascism, communism, and jihadism, but also of more benign movements like progressivism and nationalism. Despite their supposedly safer ambitions, both strive to turn the impersonal polity into a personal community of shared values to compensate for the spiritual emptiness of liberalism.
Inevitably, states bent on such a task disappoint, for there are no political solutions to pre-political problems. For some people, their resulting resentment will fuel rededication to defeating their domestic opponents. They fall prey to political zealotry in their quest for ever increasing performance from the government, leading to the sort of polarization and hyper-partisanship now extant in the United States. For others, it leads to the utter rejection of the political sphere in favor of the religious. But in these conditions, religion is drawn to compete with politics and so mimics the state’s aspirations, leading to religious fundamentalism and theocratic ambition. Finally, some few others will violently reject the state’s efforts to meddle in their lives, leading to anarchism and terrorism. In every case, when the state tries to solve pre-political problems—when it seeks to redress psychological and spiritual conditions inherent to human nature—it oversteps its bounds, provokes a backlash by the forces of History, and usually ends up exacerbating the very problems it seeks to solve.
The solution may be for the liberal state to redefine its role. The Enlightenment was wrong to turn the state into a “mortal god,” in Hobbes’s memorable phrase, for mortal gods cannot deliver on their promises of omnipotence. Better for the state to recognize what it is: an instrument for order, justice, and collective action, nothing more. There are institutions capable of speaking to mankind’s spiritual and emotional needs: the family, faith communities, and the civic associations that Tocqueville argued were essential to maintaining the vitality of democratic society. “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another,” he wrote:
A government, by itself, is equally incapable of refreshing the circulation of feelings and ideas among a great people, as it is of controlling every industrial undertaking. Once it leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track, it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny.
A liberal government that wants to protect and sustain its achievement at the End of History may need to learn to step back and ensure ample room for these non-political institutions to flourish. Strong families, churches, synagogues, mosques, sports clubs, newspapers, literary societies, bird watching clubs, veterans’ associations, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops are what give liberal society the resilience, spiritual maturity, and depth needed to resist the siren calls of nationalism, fundamentalism, and historical nostalgia. Happily, as anyone involved in such organizations knows, this amounts to far more than caretaking the museum of human history. We will not be so bored or spiritually empty as to be tempted to restart History, because we will fill our days caring for family, friends, and loved ones.