Tuesday, July 1, 2014

History Has Still Not Ended

I owe to my friend Isaac May the observation that title is everything in academic publishing.  That is to say-- the quickest path to ensuring that your latest work will be referenced for decades to come in every bibliography and introduction from the academic presses is to give it a simple title that conveys an absolutely unmistakeable thesis.  "The End of Ideology," "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," and so on.  The simplicity of the thesis, and its instant accessibility on the cover page, will ensure that no one feels compelled to actually read your book before referring to it, and they will reward you for the effort you have saved them with instant notoriety.  I can't promise that the references they make will always be positive.  The one-dimensionality of your title-thesis may delight and prove memorable simply for how easy it is to refute.  But you will at least avoid scaring off all those bottom-feeding footnoters and bloggers (like yours truly) by demanding that they actually spend time with your book before assessing it.

I know of no other way than this to account for the career of Francis Fukuyama, who seems to emerge from obscurity about once per decade with a single new idea, and yet retains far more name recognition than our most prolific scribblers.  He is like the holy man who only comes down from the mountain at great intervals with a fresh gnomic utterance and departs again, leaving its interpretation to an army of adoring scribes.  The End of History and the Last Man is surely one of the most brilliant examples from the last quarter century of the fortuitous "thesis-title."  And true to pattern, here I am-- one of the aforementioned bottom-feeders-- chanting my anathemas at the book without having read it.  I have read, however, Fukuyama's recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, so I will try to restrict my more substantive critique to what he says there.

Now, like most "big ideas," Fukuyama's are so broad as to be impossible to truly refute, but I will try to do so anyways, because they annoy me.  Oh, big ideas. They are so incredibly small!  They have to be, because ideas that were actually big enough to fit everything that theorists want to put inside them would never fit between the pages of the Wall Street Journal.  Fukuyama's little big idea is that the dialectical conflict between incompatible ideologies, world views, and ways of living that we think of as "history" is now coming to an end-- reaching its culmination in the global victory of liberal democracy over all other modes of social and cultural organization.  In this sense-- and only in this sense-- history has ended, according to Fukuyama.

The thesis is ready to withstand some of the objections that must first spring to mind.  Obviously, for instance, history in the conventional sense of being a record of noteworthy events has continued to unfold since 1992, and will continue to do so.  We are not likely anytime soon to live in a world in which nothing interesting or important ever happens.  The daily evidence of this is enough to provide endless one-liners at Fukuyama's expense.  "So much for the end of history," I snarked to a friend, for instance, after the drama in the Crimea and the Ukraine began to unfold in earnest.

But Fukuyama was never seriously questioning whether liberal democracy would face challenges, or whether the human future would be full of incident.  What he meant was that the great conflict between fundamentally different social organizations, which are each recognized by those who live within them as fundamentally legitimate within their own terms, has come to an end.  Of course, this conflict would only be recognized as the defining feature of history, tout court within the last two centuries-- at most.  This definition of history is historically contingent, therefore.  And surely one of the ways in which history has not in fact ended-- in which it will go on and on forever-- is that we will have different definitions in the future of what history is "all about."  And these will seem equally self-evident when their time comes-- just as the evidence of the guiding hand of Providence or the work of the devil or the passing of the Mandate of Heaven from one dynasty to the next seemed, to earlier generations, to be breathed in transparent dust from the pages of history.

But suppose we speak in Fukuyama's terms: has "history" in his sense of the word ended?  Let me start with where I agree with him.  Fukuyama is right to doubt, in my view, the long-term significance of the "authoritarian moment" we are supposedly in today-- a phenomenon named and assessed in several recent books profiled by Michael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books-- and I say this in contrast to other critics of Fukuyama's thesis.

One of the points most often urged against the "end of history" thesis, after all, is that liberal democracy clearly did not in fact triumph everywhere in 1989.  Russia's move in that direction, to the extent it made one, was remarkably abortive.  The ruling regime in China, meanwhile, has managed to preserve itself in power far past its supposed expiration date-- largely by the expedient of opening slightly the doors to its economic elite through a turn to markets, thereby appeasing many centers of social power outside of the ruling party which could otherwise move against it.  As for the populace, it has squeezed them all the more tightly into submission, through a massive prison system, a shockingly prolific capital punishment regime, abysmal labor conditions, and strict censorship of dissident voices and information at odds with the government line.    Meanwhile, the United States is becoming ever less liberal and less democratic as well, with civil liberties being eroded and the influence of money in politics dramatically limiting the number of real options that elected representatives can pursue.  This is what is meant by the claim that ours is an authoritarian moment.

Fukuyama's thesis is not so vulnerable to these points as might at first appear, however.  He acknowledges these ugly features of the present situation abundantly in his latest essay.  He insists, however, that "When observing broad historical trends, it is important not to get carried away by short-term developments."  One blinks over this line, thinking for a moment that Fukuyama has perhaps recognized that his younger self was over-hasty in declaring the route of democracy's enemies in 1992.  But no, his aim is to ask the rest of us not to focus too much on the state of the world in 2014, and look to the broader trajectories of social change, which he still think lead toward liberal democracy.  In this he may have a point, I think. Even when the pot calls the kettle black, after all, the pot is right.  We are blind indeed, that is to say, if we think that Russia and China offer a model that will supplant liberal democracy in the world.

This is because, as Fukuyama points out, neither regime seems to be offering an ideological system that is recognized as legitimate within its own terms.  And all regimes depend at some level not just on wielding abundant state terror, but on being able to justify themselves.  The authoritarian powers in today's world lack even a crude self-rationalization.  As Fukuyama puts it: "In the realm of ideas [...] liberal democracy still doesn't have any real competitors. Vladimir Putin's Russia and the ayatollahs' Iran pay homage to democratic ideals even as they trample them in practice. Why else bother to hold sham referendums on 'self-determination' in eastern Ukraine?"

He could have multiplied examples.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to denounce "human rights" as a Western imperialist construct, but he would still quote from Amnesty International literature when denouncing Israel.  As for the government of the United States, even as the past decade or so has seen it move in a less transparent and more arbitrary direction, its very move toward secrecy signifies that it cannot justify its actions within its own worldview.  It has had to split its consciousness into light and dark doppelgängers, so that the shadow version of itself can do the things which, in the light of day, it acknowledges to be illegitimate-- indefinite detention, CIA black sites, drone strikes in countries with which we are not at war, etc.  The very conspiratorial silence around these activities, galling as it may be, is actually a further indicator of the ideological legitimacy that liberal democracy enjoys.

In short, the available ideological alternatives to human rights, the open exchange of information, and participatory government, are remarkably intellectually impoverished and self-inconsistent.  Most anti-democratic regimes today have simply settled for the expedient of denouncing the atrocities of their opponents and suppressing the memory of their own -- the hallmark of the "nationalist" mentality, according to Orwell.  Orwell was of course worried that this sort of nationalism could prove a durable organizing principle of society-- that the truthfulness of a statement might genuinely cease to function as a measure of its value.  This, more that the physical terror exercised by Big Brother, is the truly nightmarish feature of the society depicted in 1984.  But as history has actually unfolded, this nightmare seems less plausible.  It seems now that at the moment a regime finds itself forced to ignore certain facts and suppress certain truths, it has already forfeited its legitimacy.  If it truly believed in its actions, after all, what would it have to hide?  And if it does not believe in itself, no one else will either-- for long.  To this extent, Fukuyama is basically right.

But just because liberal democracy is not likely to be unseated by such dithering and self-doubting giants as China and Russia does not mean that it is the end result of all humankind's historical development.  Eliminating a single competitor does not make you the winner of the race.  I do believe, within the admittedly limited compass of my vision, that the future lies with participatory government in some form and with individual rights-- in the sense of a set of widely-felt social obligations to forego the exercise of particular invasive powers over other people (which is the only sense in which "individual" rights have any content).

But if these two things are all that is meant by "liberal democracy," then Fukuyama's thesis is so general as to resist all refutation and to lose all content.  One can easily prove that liberal democracy is the way of the future, if enough of the alternative modes of conceivable human organization are also defined as expressions of "liberal democracy."

Besides, I don't think that these two things -- participation and individual rights -- are all that Fukuyama has in mind when he speaks of liberal democracy.  His own definition reads as follows: the three core elements of liberal democracy are "elected governments, individual rights, [and] an economic system in which capital and labor circulate[...] with relatively modest state oversight."  Now, we could challenge all three of these in some ways.  We might ask, for instance, whether an electoral system is the only form of participatory government we could ever achieve.  But I especially want to throw doubt on the third element of the definition: it is perhaps the assumption, held over since 1989, that has been most seriously called into question by recent events.

Now, admittedly, Fukuyama's definition is ambiguously phrased, leaving the author some wiggle room.  Economic circulation will be "relatively modest," he says-- relative to what?  Relative perhaps to the socialist command economies of the Soviet bloc.  But will it be modest relative to the situation currently prevailing in the United States?  This seems less likely.

Fukuyama's fundamental belief on this point of the relationship between markets and liberal democracy is stated more forthrightly further on: "The emergence of a market-based global economic order and the spread of democracy are clearly linked," he says.  Well, this is question-begging.  There is a certain regime of liberal property rights that does traverse the globe in tandem with markets.  But the extent to which this regime is necessarily "democratic" is less evident.  We owe to Karl Polanyi the old insight that, far from capitalism and democracy emerging together in Great Britain, as is often supposed, industrial capitalism could only have emerged the way it did, fostering the catastrophic social consequences and displacements it did, in a society that did not have anything close to a universal franchise.  Democracy if anything emerged as a check on capitalism-- a demand for popular political representation that became so urgent that political elites were forced to accommodate it, precisely because the strain placed on the populace by industrial capitalism was so great and so historically unprecedented.

Arguably, we are seeing something similar to Britain's early industrialization in China today, which was able to make its leap into "development," with all the massive displacement such a process entails, precisely because of its repressive state machinery, and not in spite of it.

India, by contrast, has remained relatively democratic since its Independence, and it has not experienced nearly so great a social transformation as its neighbor to the east.  Fukuyama acknowledges this comparative development inertia in India, but he maintains that, far from this being a symptom of democracy, it is due to various hindrances to democracy in that country, such as corruption and an unwieldy bureaucracy.  While suspicious of Narendra Modi, Fukuyama actually seems to think that the latter might help to make India more democratic, by undermining the latter two features of its landscape: "Modi," he writes, "a Hindu nationalist with a troubling past of tolerating anti-Muslim violence, has just been elected prime minister by an impressive majority in the hope that he will somehow cut through all the blather of routine Indian politics and actually get something done."  Does Fukuyama not realize that this promise-- to get rid of "blather" in the name of the --always eerily ambiguous-- goal of "getting something done"-- is precisely the promise that has been made by every opponent of parliamentary democracy since Carlyle?

Meanwhile, endless discussion and inefficiency are what democracy is all about.  The fundamental legitimacy of democracy does not rest in any superior claim on its part to "getting things done" -- but to the fact that it is the only system that allows people to have a say in the decisions which affect their lives.  It is a moral system, not always a likable system.  I have just finished up a week at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, so I know whereof I speak -- I can tell you that blather, and inertia, and red tape are the very surest indicators that one is in the presence of a democracy.  Modi, by contrast, has the windy promises, the ambitions that are as vague and empty as they are endowed with seeming "urgency," the record of atrocity, and the sense of personal grandiosity, to become a great destroyer of democracies-- and probably a "market-friendly" one too, as so many have been.

If anything, we could actually trace the "authoritarian moment" of our present hour to the tremendous revitalization of markets and neoliberalism that has occurred over the past quarter century.  As suggested above, the Chinese government has rendered itself more stable in part by coopting fresh elites into its ranks through the market mechanism, while absorbing all the popular unrest that the market revolution invariably causes into its prisons and its sweatshops.  The United States has lost a great deal of its democratic character, meanwhile, in large part because the erosion of its middle class, through the destruction of much of its mechanism of redistribution, has shifted the balance of political power almost exclusively toward the very wealthy, who are able to effectively limit the practice of democracy through lobbying, campaign finance, and even voter suppression.  Fukuyama may be right that "Democracy has always rested on a broad middle class."  But has a broad middle class always rested on markets?  Surely not exclusively, no?

Fukuyama seems to show some awareness of this, and he distances himself from the more extreme forms of neoliberalism.  He has both India and the United States in mind when he writes, for instance: "The biggest single problem in societies aspiring to be democratic has been their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth and the basic public services (especially education, health care and infrastructure) that are needed to achieve individual opportunity."  But making economic growth "shared," and providing education and health care to an entire population, require a mechanism for redistribution and a robust set of public institutions.  We can debate the ideal size of these things, and we will.  But that's just the point-- figuring out how to provide these things is surely an ideological matter of very great importance, and will continue to occupy us for many years in the future.  If this isn't going to constitute "history," I don't know what will.  And is every arrangement that might result from these struggles included in Fukuyama's category of "liberal democracy"?  If so, it is a capacious category indeed.

Beyond these struggles, in in the more distant horizons of time, I suspect we will see even greater changes-- ones that we can scarcely conceive at present.  I don't know what they will look like.  But it seems to me very unlikely that our current model of large states and corporations, with the former possessing coercive power to deprive people of their freedom within a set of laws determined by a handful of people chosen by vote, and the latter making decisions which affect millions without any representative mechanism among their employees or the populace, is the very best one we will ever be able to construct.

And if it is the very best we will every attain-- shame on us!  And here we get to the real paradox of all forms of philosophical "optimism"-- they are incredibly depressing!  This, I take it, is the basic insight of Voltaire's Candide.  What a profoundly miserable thought it would be, Voltaire discovered, if this really were the "best of all possible worlds"!  And what a very silly and implausible one, in reality.

There are surely ways of organizing human beings that preserve participatory government and individual rights but that don't involve voting booths or prisons.  I don't think I will live to see them, and I might not like them if I did.  I fulfilled my quota of radical hope in high school, and now, as a 24 year old, I am already a precociously despairing left-winger, focusing more on how we can make our existing institutions a little more participatory and a little more fair, in small ways, than on utopian schemes.

But I have no doubt that society can and will take shapes that we can't currently imagine.  And I wave on the younger comrades who will construct them with patronizing approval.  I won't be with them.  They will say, as Browning once said of Wordsworth: "We shall march prospering,—not thro' his presence;/ Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;".  But they won't need me anyways, as Browning ultimately didn't need his own "lost leader."  And that's because I am not the end of history, thankfully enough-- and neither is anyone, or anything, else.

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