Politics / 25 years after "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama

Hate at “The End of History”

Jarosław Kuisz · 13 June 2017

In the 1990s, Fukuyama had the impression that his ideas were better understood in post-communist countries than in the West. This is no longer true. We are now closer to attaining a Western style reality than at any point since 1989. Before now, Poland seemed to be awash with Euro-enthusiasts. Today, we are exporting Euro-scepticism as well as various stories about a “Europe of fatherlands”.

The number of ongoing criticisms of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History is surprising. Journalists and writers continually maul a book which was published a quarter of a century ago. Recently, in a single week, several op pieces were published in Poland, criticising this seminal work of American non-fiction.

A journalist writing for the Rzeczpospolita daily (3-4 June 2017, p. 2) complained that Fukuyama had created a false myth which then shaped the journalist’s youth: “History, as we understood it in the 20th century, has come to an end. From now on, we will be experiencing nothing but good times. Wealth, productivity, consumption. All we now have to do is give birth to new generations, then retire to drink cocktails in the sun”. The Rzeczpospolita journalist now considers the myth to have been damaging, because for years it blinded us to the emergence of some serious problems. He claimed to have woken up from “Fukuyama’s hypnotic vision” on the 11th of September 2011, and that the birth of the Islamic State was “the end of the illusory idea about the end of history”.

In the weekly magazine W Sieci (29 May-4 June 2017, p. 37), another journalist claimed that Fukuyama’s book was ideologically responsible for… creating Western decadence. “The European consensus was praised and presented as the triumph of logic, and hence the end of history. In actual reality, it meant an ongoing reduction of politics, and therefore freedom, and so the destruction of European identity”. And so on, and so forth.

These attacks on Fukuyama come from a range of political perspectives. Sometimes, it is the Left which attacks the philosopher for peddling reputed propaganda of extreme greed at the expense of fellow human beings (so-called “neoliberalism”). At other times, it is the Right which blames Fukuyama for cosmopolitanism and agitation intended to destroy national structures. A large number of intellectuals seem to detest The End of History just for its subtle tone of optimism.

It is worth considering why it is not the actual text of the book, but the impressions it made on a range of readers and thinkers which continues to provoke such barbed attacks in Poland. After all, the original wave of criticisms of Fukuyama, coming from the likes of Benjamin Barber or Samuel Huntington, rolled over us a long time ago. The mystery of this renewed attack against The End of History in Poland needs to be solved.

The Imagined VS the Real Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s understanding of the word “history” has nothing to do with commonplace semantics. The American thinker was making use of classic ideas by the likes of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (in the Alexander Kojève interpretation). Fukuyama frequently stressed that “the end of history” is not about the end of events, including epic developments such as wars or terrorist attacks. In his opinion, we should at times take a distancing break from current affairs and ask ourselves questions about the overall sense of history, such as may emerge from the experiences of humanity as a whole. Societies have moved on from simple tribal structures to arrive at highly complex modern models. The question is, whether we should try to dissect this process and, if so, how?

According to Fukuyama, if we assume that evolutionary processes which shape how societies organise themselves could one day reach culmination point, it is something we may be witnessing right now. Contemporary liberal democracy shows itself to be superior in comparison with previously applied structures, including hereditary monarchy, fascism and communism. The advantage comes from liberal democracy being best at overcoming inner contradictions and gaps in rational behaviours. It “regenerates itself” in the name of delivering its basic rules of freedom and equality. From a historical perspective, the dignity of the individual finds its most complete manifestation in the model offered by liberal democracy.

It is easy to see that Fukuyama is making use of a high degree of abstract thinking. Paradoxically, in terms of the theories contained in The End of History, it is possible to argue that Donald Trump’s presidential win, the move towards Brexit and the Law and Justice party coming to power in Poland are only turbulent hiccups, and future liberal democracies will eventually resolve their problems. There is another, worst-case-scenario forecast. Fukuyama also allowed for the possibility of the degeneration of liberal rule in any given country. The idea of democracy in the US, Great Britain or Poland collapsing does not undermine its status as the (thus far) most accomplished development of human ideals. As we can see, if we accept all of his assumptions, The End of History becomes difficult to qualify.

The year 2017

The End of History appears to be treated by Polish critics as symbolic, in the sense that studying its actual text could be considered a waste of time. We are not here talking about the painful truth that it is easier to enter into a polemic with an enemy who is invented, rather than real. Opinions published recently (and quoted above) give an excellent taste of what is happening in the minds and hearts of those who were raised during the years of communist Poland.

This is essentially caused by a disappointment with the West. Or even more accurately – a certain imagining of the West as being better in terms of material wealth, technology and even morals than the whole of the Soviet Bloc put together. This “land of milk and honey” in fact never existed. During times of communism, it was cobbled together using scraps of news reports and pop cultural references. In the immediate years following the end of communism, due to Poland’s own impoverished status, the successes of other countries were unnaturally blown out of proportion.

This perception of the West was sometimes compared to caricatures of ancient Arcadia or the medieval idea of “the land of perpetual happiness”*. In actual practice, this resulted in post-communist experiments such as the lame TV show “Europe can be liked”. Nevertheless, they proved extremely useful in the struggle to overcome the challenges of post-communist transformation and the development of modern Poland.

In historical terms, returning to Fukuyama, we found ourselves in a very comfortable position. It was clear what it was Poland wanted to leave behind and what it was aspiring to.

Paradoxically, it is the West which is having to reinvent itself anew. And, what is worse, from the point of view of The End of History the citizens of Western Europe or the USA did not have such a clear vision of what they might have wanted out of their future. In fact, they were less certain about what tomorrow would bring, seeing as after 1989 they had found themselves unchallenged as the leaders of the “free world”.

From the Polish perspective, it is worth stressing that – speaking in the language of social studies – Poles for many years desired to belong to a different membership group, seeing as for various reasons they did not value the one they had been saddled with by modern history. Hence the ensuing mass migration, the desire to “become someone else”, the approach to the EU which was much more positive than among existing member states in the West. Poles could not understand why the French and the Dutch could reject the idea of a European constitution in 2005. After all, Poland had found itself a member of the EU only a year earlier.

In time however, Polish perceptions of the USA and Western Europe were reshaped through newly acquired experiences, new generations being born and Poland’s own achievements. And so now, the post-communist myth of the West seems to have gone for good. [Read more on this topic: see Liberal Culture no. 375 (11/2016) dated 15 March 2016].

The pendulum swings back

Previous perceptions of the West have been replaced by superficial criticisms*. A new sort of infantilism can be seen in a return to thinking in terms, as Czesław Miłosz once called it, of “the stupid West”. For decades, Eastern Europeans were perceived as “not serious” by their Western neighbours, because they had “not gone through experiences which teach the relativity of their judgments and mental addictions”.

As in the past when there was a failure to understand the true nature of communism and the USSR, so today the “stupid West” fails to take into account contemporary threats. And yet in relation to actual problems, such as the refugee crisis, the future of the euro zone or radical Islam, we are faced with a key challenge. The societies of post-communist countries are not drawing their wisdom from unique, negative experiences which were not widely known in Western Europe.

Therefore, Poland’s prime minister using her position to lecture the West about terrorism can be seen as tactless. Today, it is merely moral demagogy. Blanket statements such as – “Europe, get up off your knees” – “The West is stupid” – “History has NOT ended” – in practice are the equivalent of stealing free rides on the European Union “bus”. We were once almost uncritically delighted with our driver and the ideas for travel schedules imported from the West. Meanwhile, today our chauffeur appears to be unappealing from almost any angle. Many of Poland’s present day Eurosceptics are former enthusiastic backers of the European experiment.

The phrase “time to grow up” here comes to mind.

30 years on from Poland’s liberation from communism, it would be wise to show solidarity with countries which have today been flooded with a new type of crisis. Instead of childish despair at how the imagined West has come to disappoint us, it would be more sensible to jointly reform European Union structures, put forward our own proposals and take fully active part in shaping the future of the Old Continent.

In the 1990s, Fukuyama had the impression that his ideas were better understood in post-communist countries than in the West. This is no longer true. We are now closer to attaining a Western style reality than at any point since 1989. Before now, Poland seemed to be awash with Euro-enthusiasts. Today, we are exporting Euro-scepticism as well as various stories about a “Europe of fatherlands”.

Meanwhile, we would like to uphold a Manichaean vision of politics, even though the reality of the EU, as if to spite us, turns out to be much more complex. As complex as… Poland, which on the one hand is experiencing sound economic growth and is attracting investment, while on the other has fundamental problems in securing the authority of both government and law. Much like Poland’s citizens, who declare a relatively high level of fulfilment in the private sphere, and yet at the same time cannot abide by the institutional frameworks which facilitate that happiness, and so on. Post-communist moralising and lamentations about a lost vision of the West seem today to be completely inappropriate. This is may be the reason why Fukuyama’s Polish critics in 2017 AD are sounding so much like some of their Western counterparts: defensive and bitter.

Translated by Marek Kazmierski.