Looking back: Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and The Last Man

America stood as the last superpower after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unrivalled, American values spread as globalisation increased, perhaps embodied by Francis Fukuyama's call for an 'end of History' (in a 1989 essay and also a book in 1992). What was Fukuyama arguing for? Does his hypothesis still make sense? By Shane Creevy

In 1776, when America rebelled against the British Crown – and succeeded – the political landscape of the world changed. Reflecting on the rise to power of America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that a thriving society which attempts to unite citizens separated by large distances requires a common belief to coagulate the masses. He wrote:

"In order that society should exist, and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper, it is required that all the minds of the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas".

Before the rise of nationalism, America was united as a nation only in name. Serious internal divisions persisted, not least between north and south, east and west. The country necessitated a universal standard upon which the people as a whole could, in Joseph Conrad's words, "set up, bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to". This was realised through religion.

In America, Tocqueville wrote that "religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of the divine laws leads man to civil freedom". As Bernard Bailyn has argued, New England Puritanism was an important aspect of the ideological origins of the American Revolution, especially in the belief that America "had a special place, as yet not fully revealed, in the architecture of God's intent". The spread of this belief that America had been ordained a special place by God became the precursor to Manifest Destiny. The American Declaration of Independence was written "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence".

Such religious language typified the writings of the American revolutionaries and led to the notion that God favoured American prosperity. Although many of the founders were deists, the Protestant ethic and the Puritan temper, according to Daniel Bell, helped nurture young America through its first tentative years of growth – from westward expansion of the thirteen colonies to economic stability and the dangers associated with nation-building (eventually to erupt in the Civil War).

"In the United States," he writes, "what gave purpose to the republic at its founding was a sense of destiny – the idea, expressed by Jefferson, that on this virgin continent God's design would be unfolded. On a virgin continent, men could be free [...] to pursue their individual ends and celebrate their achievements".

The privileged sense of American exceptionalism was astonishing. In his famous study of America Tocqueville wrote:

"The chief circumstance which has favoured the establishment and the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States, is the nature of the territory which the Americans inhabit. [...] God himself gave them the means of remaining equal and free, by placing them upon a boundless continent".

These words say nothing of the fact that the 'boundless continent' was already inhabited by a population who considered the land their home. Indeed, the concept of Manifest Destiny was used to justify the plundering of native American Indians as the drive for westward expansion became as monomaniacal as Captain Ahab's quest for Moby Dick. As Michael Paul Rogin argues: "Manifest Destiny cemented the identification of universal freedom with American expansion".

Leading figures in American political and cultural life helped forge this sense of American exceptionalism. Manifest Destiny's belief in the superiority of American culture was emboldened by Ralph Waldo Emerson's caption that "America is the country of the Future" and John L. O'Sullivan's argument that America was 'The Great Nation of Futurity', "destined for better deeds [than the European past]". The American-Mexican War, which was essentially the territorialising of Texas by America, was supported by the national poet Walt Whitman when he wrote that "we must hold possession, and so manage that [the Mexicans] stay beat". Manifest Destiny, according to Norman A. Graebner, "attributed the probability and even the necessity of [American] growth to a homogeneous process created by certain unique qualities in American civilization – the energy and vigor of its people, their idealism and faith in their democratic institutions, and their sense of mission".

Manifest Destiny found its voice in the 1990s in Francis Fukuyama. His book The End of History and the Last Man – which developed ideas originally published in his 1989 essay "The End of History?" – identified America as the home of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. He posited that with the decline of communism, all viable alternatives to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had vanished and that, while 'history' – that is, a series of events – would continue, 'History' – that is, an evolutionary process – was at an end because there was no longer a struggle between competing ideologies. Fukuyama wrote:

"The remarkable worldwide character of the current liberal revolution [...] constitutes further evidence that there is a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies – in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy".

Universal History is a contemporary adaptation of Manifest Destiny. Both rely on the notion that liberal democracy, or America, is the bastion of a civilised future. No longer will Indians or communists hold humanity back from its necessarily progressive development.

Fukuyama termed 'history' the events of the past and 'History' a single evolutionary process. 'History' is what is written down. It is often interpreted as directional, intentional, and teleological. This is why 'we are where we are'. 'history' is simply the series of events that take place in human affairs. The vast majority of these are not recorded in History. Fukuyama's argument professed the teleology of human development based on a reading of Hegel's conception of History. Hegel believed that man's inherent desire for recognition led to the separation between master and slave, which liberal democracy – the universal and homogenous state – then abolished. "The end of history", Frederick C. Beiser writes of Hegel's philosophy, "is nothing more nor less than the realization of human freedom".

Fukuyama claims that the future is subject to 'the end of History', where "there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions". 'History', for him, will of course continue to develop in surprising ways, but human development will no longer happen. Teleology has brought humans to a place they had always been moving toward. Fukuyama posits the end of the narrative of History. It is certainly the end of the grand narrative of History for him.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida critiqued capitalism and liberal democracy around the same time as Fukuyama. Derrida argued against the Fukuyaman notion that humanity is experiencing a time of great prosperity and equality. In Specters of Marx (1993) he categorised the 10 plagues of modern democracy: unemployment, the exclusion of the homeless, international economic wars, the contradictions inherent in the free market, the foreign debt, the arms industry, the spread of nuclear weapons, inter-ethnic wars, the mafia, and the present state of international law and its institutions.

Never, he writes, "has the horizon of the thing whose survival is being celebrated (namely, all the old models of the capitalist and liberal world) been as dark, threatening, and threatened". According to this hegemonic discourse, the disasters faced by non-Western, non-democratic nation-states precipitate the inevitable failure of these societies – but no such disaster is pronounced in a Western liberal democracy when the same disasters take place there. Derrida argues against the ideal presentation of American liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism as benevolent.

Derrida shows how the American ideal often gets confused with reality. Contemporary disasters and cataclysms ("terror, oppression, repression, extermination, genocide, and so on") are, according to trumpeters of American triumphalism such as Fukuyama, empirical events that do not register doubts for the continuing viability of liberal democracy. Applied to non-Western states, however, these equivalent facts suddenly obtain teleological significance. The accumulation of crises in the West, writes Derrida, "would in no way refute the ideal orientation of the greater part of humanity toward liberal democracy. As such, as telos of a progress, this orientation would have the form of an ideal finality. Everything that appears to contradict it would belong to historical empiricity, however massive and catastrophic and global and multiple and recurrent it might be".

Fukuyama will not accept, according to Derrida, that, with the accumulation of crises in the West, "all the evidence [...] bears massive witness to the fact that neither the United States nor the European Community has attained the perfection of the universal State or of liberal democracy, nor have they even come close". For Derrida, "liberal democracy [...] has never been so much in the minority and so isolated in the world [...]. It has never been in such a state of dysfunction in what we call the Western democracies". Derrida's a venir looks toward the future than is not reducible to prediction, even if it should manifest itself in some "terrifying form of monstrosity".

Who has been proven right? You decide.

(Note: Fukuyama became a vocal critic of American neo-conservatism in the wake of George W. Bush's foreign policy decisions. He published After the Neo-Cons: Where the Right Went Wrong in 2006 and supported Obama over McCain in the 2008 Presidential election. In the video below he discusses this change of focus.)