History’s Curtain Call

History, if memory serves well, has ended twice. It is possible that now, in the wake of 2016’s afterbirth, it has terminated for a third time.

25 years on from the publication of American philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, liberal democracy has an effective stranglehold on virtually all western societies, bar the few usual (dis)honourable exceptions. Liberal Democracy marked the final form of human government and of social (and cultural) evolution. Events would continue to occur (Rudge from Bennett’s The History Boys helpfully reminds us that history will always be “just one f*cking thing after another”) but society would progress no longer; the dialectic which had driven society through different epochs and stages of consciousness had ended. There was a thesis, but no antithesis.

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the reactionary forces of the New Right – intellectually upheld by the Thatcher and Reagan’s Chicago circle – declared that the era of ideology was over. It was good governance that mattered; healthy finances – it was the economy, stupid. Communism, and by default, the hopes of all major Communist and Democratic Socialist parties across Europe (many had made the transition from the former to the latter, pulling away from Moscow, declaring a new “Eurocommunism”. Cf. Partito Comunista Italiano) had been defeated: Marx would be confined to Highgate forever. There was now no alternative , either intellectually or practically to orthodox liberal democracy, so much so that even the social democratic parties embraced it. Sunny Jim Callaghan was the first culprit, soon to be followed by the highly successful generation of Labour leaders, led by Tony ‘Bambi’ Blair himself. This would mark the return of credibility to the left, but also an unwavering faith in the dogma which it espoused. [State] capitalism would not be ideologically flexible as it had promised, but rigid and purist. History, although in its grave by now, had seen this happen before. When the European communist parties turned to democratic, Western form of socialism (in a vanguard led by Enrico Berlinguer), its greatest proponents would go on, well past ’89, to dog the European left, refusing to stick to their modernising ideals and modernise even further. Indeed, in contemporary Italy, for example, the only people that can force a Left government to its knees is the Left itself.

Fukuyama, in his essay (first published in 1989), argued that the period of Marxist hegemony was over. Karl Marx – the greatest proponent for an “end to history” (‘communism is the riddle of history solved‘), had thought that history would culminate in communism. Borrowing from his philosophical forefather GWF Hegel, he saw history as a dialectical (conflict of ideas: thesis vs antithesis, converges in a synthesis) process. For Marx, this conflict was a class struggle. Indeed, much of the 20th century was dominated intellectually to the extent that some, notably Raymond Aron (student of Hegelian Alexander Kojève), would remark that ‘Marxism was the opiate of the intellectuals‘. With Marxism too, it seemed that History had ended. There simply was no alternative. Even Communist intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre (a student of Kojève, too, but the binary opposite to Aron in every way) would take their  time in renouncing Stalinist USSR. 

Hegel had first predicted that history would have ended at the Battle of Jena, in 1806, when the values of the French Revolution were actualised with the defeat of Prussian forces at the hands of Napoleon. At this point, the bases for Liberal democracy (liberal insofar man’s rights to freedom were protected by law, democratic insofar as the state couldn’t exist without the consent of the people) were created. All of this underpinned by a capitalist market economy. The system was hit by war after war, until Western Europe reached peace with the arrival of the European Union. Opposition to Liberal Democracy, since it could no longer be military, had to relocate to the realm of ideas, or consciousness as Hegel termed it. There, too, it was impossible to fight the status quo, because circumstance always hindered ambition.

210 years later, Western politics seem to have little chance of re emerging for this TINA (there is no alternative) mentality. Marxist cultural hegemony ended with the Wall, and Liberal Democratic hegemony took two blows to the head with the victories of Brexit and Trump. The European Union, Kojève’s ideal ‘universal homogeneous state’ (which would History’s last call) has been dealt a serious blow. Fukuyama, albeit his neoconservative status (he was friends with Dubya‘s warhawk Paul Wolfowitz, but fell out over Iraq and wound up voting for Obama), remarked that the end of history would be a “sad” affair. It has proved to be so. What makes this even more painful is that the death of liberal democracy as we know it marks the third capitulation of history. The realm of ideas – as Fukuyama and Hegel predicted – has come to reign over the material in a world still so obviously driven by equally material needs and desires. It is for this that western economies in conservative hands were clubbed with austerity, an intellectually bankrupt policy, rolling back the state (and the years) in the name of parsimony. We must hope that the rebirth of this conflict of ideas – this dialectic – yields a synthesis which, in always providing, without fail, an alternative to the perennially reactionary status quo, gets History on its feet again. 

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