It is wrong to ridicule Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man. Sometimes people have used the title to belittle the ideas of the book. Obviously, history did not end. But Fukuyama never made an apocalyptic prediction. He meant an end of history in a philosophic sense. Marx predicted a communist utopia would emerge from the end of history. Fukuyama reoriented this theory so that liberal democracy became the culmination of history. In effect, the consolidation of liberal democracy brought about the final form of political governance. There was extreme confidence during the third wave of democratization just as there is extreme pessimism during the current democratic recession.
This work largely defines Francis Fukuyama. It sets the stage for all his future work. His two-volume work on political order, Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, is his most important work. But it feels like the realization of his dream to provide an historical account of politics. The first work breaks down political modernization into three components which culminate in representative liberal democracy. The second work helps explain why some democracies fail to govern adequately. But it does not deny there is a path toward perfection.
The second major theme of The End of History is personal dignity and identity. Political science has a long tradition of scholars who emphasize civic society. Fukuyama turns this approach upside down in this work. He explains how democracy gives people a sense of dignity. This is the reverse approach of those who emphasize political culture like Robert Putnam or Seymour Martin Lipsett. For example, Lipsett’s most well-known paper is “Some Social Prerequisites of Democracy.” Fukuyama believes the political system fosters its own civic culture as well. Alexis De Tocqueville had similar thoughts. He found Americans had greater civic engagement than citizens in Europe. He felt the political system fostered a sense of civic responsibility.
Of course, it is ironic how Fukuyama emphasizes the role of history yet relies so little on it within this work. He uses the same tired thought experiments about the state of nature that are unnecessary thanks to so much research of prehistory. Fukuyama sees the emergence of aristocracy as a response to the human desire for dignity. The peasantry submits to aristocrats who value dignity more than life. But Fukuyama fails to explain why some aristocrats submit to a king. Do they simply value their self-worth less than a king? Nor does he explain why titles became patrimonial. His account implies greater turnover in aristocracy as the value systems of their descendants evolve.
Early societies were a mix of democratic and aristocratic societies. Early North American tribes were largely democratic and consensual. The Iroquois are the best-known example of a constitution built largely on democratic principles. Nearly every European nation had some tradition of assemblies typically inherited from the early Germanic tribes. England had Parliament, Spain had the Cortes and France had the Estates General. Their role was diminished as power was gradually centralized over centuries.
History is not a consistent evolution from autocracy into democracy. It’s more like a system of ebbs and flows where the social structure undergoes periods of centralization and counterwaves of decentralization. Moreover, democracy is not an outcome of modernization. Indeed, the exportation of democracy is likely possible because most societies have similar traditions in their past. Western liberal democracy is a product of modernization, but it relies heavily on echoes from the past for its success.
Nonetheless, Fukuyama is among the giants of political science today. It is impossible to write think deeply about democracy or democratization without some answer for Fukuyama’s ideas. And this work acts as a prelude for his masterpiece on political order. Furthermore, the ideas discussed in this work will put imaginations into overdrive as they work to reconcile his powerful narrative with their own ideas. The work is available on Audible and it is a remarkably easy listen. Fukuyama is among the best pure writers in the discipline. He writes for an audience beyond academics and it shows in his prose. Undergraduates will impress professors when they name-drop Fukuyama in a test or paper. But they will really make a name for themselves if they read the full book and take the time to understand it. Graduate students have already read this or have it on their reading list already. Casual readers should not be afraid of this work. It’s worth the read and has not lost its relevance despite the decline of democracy in recent years. The next wave of democracy will restore the optimism of the past democratic waves.
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