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

We live in the world of losers

Łukasz Pawłowski and Karolina Wigura in conversation with Ivan Krastev · 13 June 2017

“The dominant narrative after the end of the Cold War was that everybody was a winner. Not a single state or society was defeated – communism lost but it was overthrown by Russian citizens, there were no American tanks in Moscow. Now we’re in a strange situation where everybody feels like a loser.”

Łukasz Pawłowski: Francis Fukuyama is probably one of the most often criticized political scientist in modern history. However, if Fukuyama’s claim – that after the collapse of the Soviet Union liberal democracy would become the dominant political system – was so wrong from the very beginning, why did his article and a later book attracted so much attention? 

Many people had the feeling that with the end of Cold War a new world was emerging and were trying to articulate how it might look like. It was also a time when changes in the realm of technology made people experience the world in a different manner. People started to travel much more and new means of communication, including Internet started to appear.

Fukuyama’s major idea was that in the future political institutions and practices of the West are going to be imitated by the rest of the world. And for him as a Japanese American – probably more than for somebody else – it was easy to imagine that the copy can be even better than the original.

ŁP: And yet the future proved more complicated. Why?

In his works Fukuyama predicted an intensified movement of ideas, of rules and of capital. But there’s one thing that he did not mention – the movement of people, migration. He seemed to believe that ideas, capital and rules will move but the people will somehow stay in one place.

Karolina Wigura: So higher levels of migration are the major reason behind the current crisis of liberal democracy?

For me, the migration illustrates the other side of the global opening that was there from the beginning but was not discussed at that time. When Fukuyama said: “A new world is coming, and this age will be the age of imitation”, he failed to realize that any imitation – successful or unsuccessful – first is going to produce resentment. Imitation is kind of asymmetrical power relation. The relationships between the original and the copy is never a relationship between equals.

Secondly, after 1989 the major question was how the West was going to transform the world. But now the other major question is how the rest of the world has also transformed the West? The end of Cold War did not mean that the Communism was simply going to vanish, but also that the Cold-War-West, as we knew it, on the level of institutions and values could not be preserved. The idea that the end of Cold War will change others but not the West was a rather naive assumption.

The third thing many Westerners failed to realize is that normally people want to imitate somebody, not because they want to be like them forever, but because they want to beat them one day.

ŁP: All this, however, doesn’t explain why after the World War II so many countries, for example Japan or Germany, were so successful in building liberal democracies and free market economies as we know it?

Japan was imitating the West, while at the same time preserving its non-western identity. Being an island it was always a very specific part of the West and modernization of technology was not perceived as a threat to Japanese identity. So, this major fear produced by globalization – the fear that cultural identities are going to die – did not affect the Japanese. Let’s also not forget that Japan remains one of the most closed societies in the world and when we talk about migration there’s probably no society, which is more protective of its borders. I do believe that facing the current choice of whether to live with foreign migrants or with robots, the Japanese will go for robots.

When it comes to Germany, this is of course a major success story of imitation. But for the Germans this imitation of western democratic institutions was also the way to run away from their legacy. The Germans didn’t want to keep the identity they had before and which haunted them. These are therefore two very special cases, but on the basis of these two cases, the idea was created that the whole world can be easily remodeled along these lines.

ŁP: At first it looked like that might actually happen.

The dominant narrative after the end of the Cold War was that everybody was a winner. Not a single state or society was defeated – communism lost but it was overthrown by Russian citizens, there were no American tanks in Moscow. Post-1989 order was very much based on the idea that in this new world everyone can feel victorious.

Now we’re in a strange situation where everybody feels like a loser. Even in places like Poland and Hungary it is quite common to see the ’89 revolution as a revolution betrayed, as a moment when one form of internationalism was replaced by another. This is a very strong argument for some sovereign-minded part of the elites.

Even in the United States many Americans who voted for Trump believe the US ended up as a loser in this globalized world, that America put a lot of efforts and energy to sustain the system, which ultimately hurts the US. The world of winners strangely turned into the world of losers. This is one of the most interesting and most worrying dimensions of the current crisis.

KW: I would like to pull this discussion a little bit in different direction and ask about the liberal democracy itself. Do you think that the meaning of this notion is the same today and 28 years ago at the time when Fukuyama was writing his famous article?

At that time the number of liberal democracies was much smaller. Most of these countries were quite prosperous and allied with each other. Fukuyama tried to generalize on the basis of their experience. Now, there are free elections in many countries in the world and the democracy became the catchphrase used by everybody. This spread of democracy is starting to change the very understanding of what liberal democracy is. Can we say that we are actually dealing with liberal democracy in some of the African states, where the state and the sense of national identity are very weak? As a result we are moving to more minimalist definition of democracy and particularly liberal democracy – based on free elections, rule of law, and some sort of free-market economy.

KW: I ask this question because I recently read a book by Colin Crouch Post-Democracy in which he describes how the ideal of liberal democracy is different from what we actually experience. Ideally, in a liberal democracy a maximum number of people should have the widest possible access to different strategies of influencing the government and political processes. In reality, however, most of the people can vote on a regular basis but only limited number of groups and lobbies can actually influence political processes. Maybe gradually we are beginning to realize how large this discrepancy is.

Crouch basically says that there is a kind of elite consensus which is limiting the possibility of people to make real political choices. We can see it clearly on the level of EU economy policies.

But if you ask somebody like Viktor Orbàn about the flaws of liberal democracy his arguments are not coming from the same perspective. It is not the powerlessness of the citizen that he criticizes – it’s much more the powerlessness of the small nation states. He believes – and said that in his famous speech defending illiberal democracy – that in this globalized world for the small and medium countries in order to be competitive you need political regimes based on the overwhelming majorities, organized around certain type of ethnical-religious group. Only such a regime allows a given country to pursue their national interests, to be competitive and not to be weakened by different non-state actors – like multinational companies, media or NGOs.

KW: The problem however, seems to lie not only in the tensions between the people and the elites, the winners and the losers. The striking thing is that so many people today no longer believe that liberal democracy is important to keep. The question is of course whether we do have any alternative which is not a populist one.

We tend to have a very idealized picture how this west liberal democracies is used to look like. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s there were also many people who felt unrepresented, and many institutions which were not trusted.

But the major problem lies in how the nature of the relation between voters and political elites has changed over the years. During the Cold War and the time of the nation states, the voter had his power not simply because he could vote for this or that party. He could not be ignored because he was a major tax-payer, a worker and quite often also a soldier. It was extremely important for Western democracies to keep their working classes loyal to the political system in order to make them less vulnerable to ideological attacks coming from the communist block. That is why in the days of the Cold War the boundaries between the East and the West were very solid but the borders between social and political classes within Western societies were much more open. With the communist threat gone and globalization advancing, the borders between the states became much more open while those between political and social classes solidified.

ŁP: So the the current crisis of liberal democracy boils down to rising social inequalities?

The real problem does not concern so much social inequality itself but social mobility. We have entered a world in which social mobility is more often taking the form of migration. These days if you want to improve your social status you are much more likely to change your country than hope that social advance will come about in your own political system. This tendency is particularly strong in many of Eastern European countries in which many young people believe that it’s more socially prestigious to be a taxi driver in London than to be a civil servant in Poland or Bulgaria. And it’s not only about the money.

These general changes are transforming the nature of the elite-voter relations. The voter is now very much weakened. He’s not a soldier any more – armies have been professionalized and in the end it’s the technology that does the fighting. He might still be a worker, but the worker is not as important as he used to be, because most of the multinational companies can easily change working environment. He also lost part of his power as a taxpayer because much more important for the state and its wealth is the capacity to attract investors than collect taxes.

In consequence the citizen is today much freer than ever before, but on the other hand he feels very powerless. What’s more the freedom to travel has helped in creating an exit-minded citizen, that is a citizen who can protest against the system by simply leaving the country, rather than trying to change it. Declining loyalty to your own, domestic political democracy is a very important change which will also change political regimes.

KW: Into illiberal democracies?

Not necessarily, because the problem with illiberal societies is that they produce stagnating societies. They are very much organized around a particular party or even a particular leader, and thus do not work well in such a dynamic environment we now live in. And also, as we can see particularly well in the case of Hungary, this kind of regime stimulates exodus of the people. Yet at the same time the success Orbàn achieved shows he touched upon something real.

KW: Which is?

I believe it is a fear in smaller and mid-sized nations that in this global world they will loose their political and cultural identity and in the end they can simply disappear. Demographic panic can explain a lot about what is happening in European politics.

ŁP: Does it mean that the international system of liberal democracies has reached its limits?

Democratic systems have been changing all the time – first on the issue who is eligible to vote, then what questions can we vote upon, and in the meantime on how the power relations between the majority and minorities within the society should be settled. From this point of view democracy has always been in some sort of crisis. I therefore do not see current situation as an existential threat but have a problem with some suppositions which I seen as nostalgic ones.

One of them is the belief that you can preserve the political system exactly as it was and therefore we should totally fear populist parties, because the establishment parties are the only vehicles for doing politics in a liberal democracy. Probably not. Probably in 10-20 years there will not be as many center-right and center-left parties as we used to have over last decades.

Other nostalgic position comes from those who believe we can save our democracies by totally closing our borders and in this way retrieve the old, coherent societies we used to live in. For a while you can get this illusion that you have consolidated the nation, but it simply not possible to stop information from circulating all around the world, it is not possible to create self-sufficient economies, at least not for the majority of small and mid-sized countries.

From this point of view, paradoxically, the radicalism we see now coming both from the left and right is also nostalgic. The left is nostalgic for the times when they had their ideological identity and they used to have the fight they liked. The right is nostalgic for the times of nation states and national identity. But when it comes to governing neither the far-left nor the far-right are proposing something that is going to work in the next 5 or 10 years.