Liberal Democracy – the Culmination of Ideological Evolution or a Design for Universal Utopia? The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama as read in the early 21st century

By Piotr Kłodkowski

Fukuyama Koniec Historii.

Millions of people saw the late 1980s and the early 1990s as the beginning of a whole new era even if the optimism and hope for a change for the better in their lives were accompanied by a sense of insecurity and concerns about the final outcomes of the expected political, social and economic transition. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, of which the uncontested victor was the United States. Another confirmation of the Western triumph was the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union – a superpower that had been rotting from the inside for several years – and the revolutions, in most cases peaceful, throughout Central and Eastern Europe, which ultimately resulted in the rejection of communism as a global ideology. Many authoritarian dictatorships on almost all continents lost their strategic patrons and were forced to reformulate their policies and their entire systems of state management. Just a decade earlier almost no one foresaw such a global scenario, and almost no one was able to imagine a world without Soviet presence. History accelerated rapidly and amazed observers and scholars once again. Why did things happen this way? Did they have to happen the way they happened? And how to respond? An attempt to provide a post-factum explanation may be intriguing if it also involves a scenario describing possible future developments. In the summer of 1989, an essay by Francis Fukuyama, at the time an academic little known outside the United States, is published in The National Interest. The title itself is clearly provocative – “The End of History?” Probably quite unexpectedly for the author himself, it proves internationally controversial, giving rise to a heated discussion. Three years later, Fukuyama publishes his book The End of History and the Last Man. This time there is no question mark, which suggests that the author staunchly stands by his original thesis. The list of polemicists who criticise him directly or indirectly is becoming ever longer. They include Ralf Dahrendorf, Jacques Derrida, Robert Kagan, Samuel Huntington, Kishore Mahbubani and Hugo Chavez. Among his detractors are both proponents of new Marxist interpretations and fans of realpolitik who are convinced that authoritarianism in its many guises in an effective solution. There are also followers of various strains of fundamentalism and sceptics who do not believe in the teleological analysis of history, which they often consider to be political and economic eschatology. Francis Fukuyama touches extremely sensitive strings in the minds of academics, ideologues and politicians almost all over the world. Criticising his thesis and the entire methodology that underlies his argument has been fashionable for a long time now.

The idea of the longue durée

At the outset, let us reject the completely groundless interpretation of Fukuyama’s book that tends to be put forward in unsophisticated journalism. He has never claimed that we have reached the end of history construed as a sequence or more or less dramatic events. We will still be confronted by wars, coups, economic crises, eruptions of hatred caused by religious intolerance, racism or extreme nationalism. They are an invariable part of human life, and Fukuyama understands this very well. The author means something else and he tries to explain it by referring to the great philosophers of Europe: Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Locke and Hegel. Like they, he asks fundamental questions: does the history of mankind has a definite course, and if so, what is its direction? Are humans, in essence, guided by material interests, and is this what shapes history, or perhaps – as Hegel once suggested – they fight above all for recognition? Are liberal democracy and the free market, whose purpose is to ensure liberty, equality and economic freedom, the ultimate and at the same time optimal political goals of world history? And is the natural sciences model a suitable one for studying historical processes? Fukuyama often refers to the writings of the Russo-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève, and it is largely through his intellectual glasses that he tackles Hegelian philosophy. It was Kojève who saw in the development of history a certain final goal, which was to be a “universal and homogeneous state,” basically resembling a modern version of liberal democracy with a developed welfare system. In the real world, this idea would probably be reflected by the European Union (to whose rise Kojève contributed to a certain extent as an advisor to the French government), and even more by contemporary Scandinavian countries: Sweden, Denmark or Norway.

After the publication of The End of History, Fukuyama repeatedly honed his arguments and explained contemporary events by invoking his model of historical interpretation. In the following years, he added more observations that were meant to confirm his thesis. Fukuyama believes that a careful analysis of selected historical trends should not focus on relatively short periods because the hallmark of any robust political system is its long duration, and not just the effects of its operation that can be observed within a single decade. This even brings to mind the concept of longue durée, or “long duration,” which was originated by Marc Bloch and subsequently developed by Fernand Braudel and commonly used by the French Annales school of historical writing. It was not big battles or the exploits of some leaders that ultimately shaped today’s civilisations, but rather long-term historical processes, which involved thousands of social, political or economic phenomena. Therefore it is impossible to properly assess our (or any other) era without analysing some logic that governs its progress or decadence, and without gradually discovering development rules that allow us to predict potential transformation scenarios in the modern world. In other words, we should not concentrate exclusively on the events, even the most dramatic ones, which are happening in the present, in order to extrapolate them to the near future; we should instead try to assess the current state of affairs from a much broader perspective, taking into account the complexity of observable phenomena. Legal culture and entrepreneurial spirit, religion and moral convictions, social capital and the tradition of building a community founded on certain values – all this does not disintegrate immediately even during most violent revolutions or deepest crises. Democracies do not perish so easily – the author of The End of History emphasises – although they may go through phases when they are weaker or hibernate temporarily.

Globalisation of democracy?

Fukuyama cites hard data that illustrate the spread of global democratisation, although it should be noted that the political and economic systems introduced in other parts of the world did not necessarily resemble the versions that we know from Western Europe or the United States. Larry Diamond of Stanford University, whose research the author cites, states that in 1974 there were only 35 effectively democratic countries in which elections were regularly held. This was less than 30 percent of the world’s countries. By 2013, the number approached 120, which represented more than 60 percent of the total. The year 1989, which brought the “Autumn of Nations,” and a breakthrough to our part of Europe, accelerated the democratisation process tremendously. Samuel Huntington dubbed it “Democracy’s Third Wave,” which had started fifteen years earlier in southern Europe and Latin America, and then spread to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, the early 1990s filled even the gloomiest pessimists with optimism. It appeared that more “waves of democratisation” could soon be sweeping other countries hitherto regarded as bastions of authoritarianism. However, it soon turned out that in many regions this global march towards democracy could be followed by an explosive retreat towards some form of autocracy. Twenty-five years later, Fukuyama admits that he disregarded a crucial phenomenon, namely the gradual decomposition of the various institutions and structures that form the backbone of the democratic system. An efficient state that worked smoothly for thirty or forty years in an era of relative peace or at least of well-recognised threats may cease to function altogether or prove inadequate in performing its tasks in completely new external circumstances. In Europe, the last decade brought first an acute financial crisis, then a powerful migration wave from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, and finally bloody terrorist attacks in France, Germany or Belgium. These events have become the touchstone that tests the mechanisms of the modern state. Is it still able to perform its basic functions, and thus – above all – ensure the safety of its citizens? Can it ensure social cohesion, without which it is difficult to imagine the normal operation of state institutions? Will it sustain the relatively slow but steady economic growth, and will this be enough to ensure an adequate standard of living for most people, and not just for the privileged group? And finally, of course, the fundamental question, which in a way sums up all the previous ones: will liberal democracy, given the new challenges and threats that used to be poorly understood, be able to bear the weight of the tasks it has been set, or do we need a completely different political and economic system that would be much more efficient and could react more efficiently to the continuously growing list of problems? These questions are no longer posed exclusively in academia – they often become part of a nationwide debate, and a violent one at that. In such circumstances, there is a temptation to impose authoritarian solutions, which are supposedly more effective in an emergency – actual or imagined. Such debate is of course underway in Central and Eastern Europe, but it is also taking place in some countries within the “hard core” of the European Union and it is also in progress in the United States where it will continue into the post-election era. Fukuyama is aware of the various roads that the development of democracy can take, and of the possibility that democracy may become extinct after thriving for a relatively short time. In The End of History, he gave examples from East Asia, Latin America or the Middle East where the citizens, in a free election, had already decided or would decide (as we were to learn later) to give power to groups that openly declared that they would introduce authoritarian systems with only some democratic trappings preserved. That is exactly what happened in Iran just after the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi; a similar scenario was played out in Peru, and then much later in the Philippines. Fukuyama remains an optimist, or perhaps an optimistic realist, but he states that the “end of history” hypothesis was never a deterministic one and does not by any means reflect a naïve faith in the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy around the world. As he himself writes a quarter of a century after the publication of his book: “Democracies survive and succeed only because people are willing to fight for the rule of law, human rights and political accountability. Such societies depend on leadership, organizational ability and sheer good luck.” In a word, a political system, and especially liberal democracy, is not an entity in itself, which is completely independent of the values endorsed by the majority of citizens. It is more like a living organism that must constantly be nurtured in order to survive by those whom it is supposed to serve. Simply said, democracy cannot survive without democrats. However, the matter is complex. Even inhabitants of countries that have never openly renounced democratic ideals and where – as common wisdom holds – they are firmly rooted, may have certain doubts concerning democracy. The United States is no exception in this respect. In his Twitter feed, Fukuyama draws attention to the research conducted by Nathaniel Persily and Jon Cohen whose results were published in The Washington Post one month before the 2016 presidential election. As many as 40% of respondents (out of a sample of three thousand) stated that they had “lost faith in U.S. democracy;” 6% stated that they “had never had faith” in it; and only the slightest majority (52%) admitted that they still “had faith in U.S. democracy.” Among the sceptics, Republican supporters prevailed, which means, inter alia, that they would have had a big problem with recognising the result of the election if their candidate had suffered a defeat. Only 31% of respondents reported unconditional acceptance of such a result, while the rest expressed lesser or greater doubts. Therefore, if we assume that the acceptance of election results by the vast majority of citizens is one of the foundations of faith in the democratic system, the skepticism declared in this respect undermines the sense of holding such elections on a regular basis. Democracy, as both authors conclude, is not just about electing one candidate or the other, but is primarily based on the fundamental assumption that citizens have the right to choose among such candidates at all. We should also add that the gradual erosion of democratic beliefs goes hand in hand with Americans’ loss of confidence in their fellow citizens. This should not really come as a surprise, because a low level of social capital usually does not favour the development of democracy. The faith in the power of democratic ideals slowly begins to crumble. However, we cannot be sure if this is just a short-lived episode or rather the beginning of a long-term trend.

Ideological alternatives

If we reject real democracy (as opposed to a façade of it), what can we choose instead? What would be a viable alternative that could enjoy popular support? Fukuyama provides examples of countries belonging to the Islamic civilisation, and admits that political Islam may offer a certain counter-proposal, even if it is limited geographically and culturally. However, he does not develop this concept in detail, and no such analysis is evident in his later publications. Most frequently, he cites the example of Iran, but he refers to the situation in the Arab countries as well. In The End of History, he recalls that in municipal elections in Algeria, Islamic fundamentalists were elected, “hoping to establish some sort of popular theocracy.” Indeed, this scenario was replayed in Egypt as a consequence of the Arab Spring: the democratic election of an undemocratic government resulted in the army eventually taking power. Fukuyama concludes that “democratisation does not necessarily lead to liberalisation,” which obviously does not give much reason for optimism to supporters of promoting democratic values globally.

A completely different alternative is offered by China – a classic authoritarian state that has achieved tangible economic success and provides an attractive ideological model for a considerable number of followers. Fukuyama agrees that market-oriented authoritarian states are able to effectively stimulate economic prosperity. In creating conditions conducive to business development, they can even be more effective than democratic governments. In The End of History, there are numerous examples of economic success from the 19th and 20th centuries: Wilhelmine Germany, Meiji Japan, the Russia of Witte and Stolypin, Chile under Pinochet, and all the “Asian tigers” in the contemporary era. The race between young democracies and market-oriented authoritarian states may produce outcomes that are very unfavourable for the former. Fukuyama discusses the 1960s in this context. In that period, India, Ceylon, Chile, the Philippines and Costa Rica, i.e. developing democracies, recorded annual growth of only 2.1%, while the then authoritarian regimes of Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and even Spain and Portugal reached an average rate of 5.2%. However, in the later decades the aforementioned authoritarian regimes entered the democratic path (Thailand with varying success), while the democratic countries retained their political system (with the exception of Chile’s dramatic episode involving the Pinochet regime). In this way, they demonstrated that economic prosperity is not really enjoyable without equality and – even more so – without freedom. In the second half of the 20th century, that belief united Europeans and some Asians from the eastern part of the continent. At one point, Fukuyama recalls Hegel, who stated, “the Eastern nations knew that one was free; the Greek and Roman world only that some are free; while we know that all men absolutely (man as man) are free.” He then translates the German philosopher’s world into political reality, explaining that “the embodiment of human freedom was the modern constitutional state, or again, what we have called liberal democracy.” Thus, the examples of Taiwan and South Korea could suggest that in some vaguely defined future, China, which is culturally related to both, could choose a similar development model. Currently, this reasoning appears completely ungrounded in facts, especially given the tougher political course taken by President Xi Jinping and declarations concerning the return to the “sources of Maoist ideology.” We do not really know whether in this case the seed of the future democratic impulse will ever result in the bountiful harvest of a democratic state. However, this does not change Fukuyama’s beliefs. More than a quarter of a century after the publication of The End of History, Fukuyama sees no robust alternatives to liberal democracy in axiological terms. One cannot be sure, however, whether the number of people who would agree with him is still as high as 25 years ago.

Church and democracy

In the Polish context, we should also pay attention to Fukuyama’s comments on the transformation in Spain and the role of the Church in that process of change. Spain has often been compared to Poland, and such comparisons have not always been justified. However, they are countries with similar numbers of inhabitants (over 46 million and 38 million respectively), strongly influenced by Catholicism, strongly polarised in ideological terms and with a significant presence of the political right. Finally, the history of authoritarian rule experienced by both countries makes some Spanish solutions potentially relevant options for Poland. There are probably more differences than similarities, but it is the latter that catch our eye.

Fukuyama states, and this claim remains very much valid today, that “[t]he Spanish transition to democracy … was perhaps the purest recent case of the failure of authoritarian legitimacy. General Francisco Franco was, in many ways, the last exponent of the nineteenth-century European conservatism that based itself on throne and altar, the same conservatism that went down to defeat in the French Revolution.” The author reminds us that after the Second Vatican Council, the Church itself initiated the process of internal liberalization, and Spanish Catholics gradually accepted Christian democratic values: “Not only did the Spanish church discover that there was no necessary conflict between Christianity and democracy, it increasingly took on the role of human rights advocate and critic of the Francoist dictatorship.” The Spanish clergy initially favoured the democratic transformation of the 1970s, which turned out to be relatively painless in social and political terms. After some time, however, they started to express their opposition to the solutions put forward. The adoption of a new liberal democratic system resulted in a significant shift in Spain’s relations with the Vatican and had a considerable impact both on the financial standing of the Spanish Church and on its role in the legislative process. All the systemic solutions adopted redefined the position of the Church and of the Catholic community in the liberal democratic order: first, the liberalization of divorce law, then the reduction of direct state financial assistance (with some subsidies retained for the maintenance of religious buildings considered works of art), and finally – after the Socialists’ victory in 2004 – the legalization of same-sex marriage. The opposition of Catholic organisations to the liberal changes that were planned and implemented (which also involved abortion and euthanasia) was clearly heard for many years in the media as well as in churches and during street demonstrations. However, it did not ultimately translate into legislation and gradually the Church’s official teaching, if not completely eliminated from the public sphere, at least lost much of its importance compared to just a few decades ago. Therefore, the cost of support for the democratic transition by the Church and of its growing criticism towards the previous authoritarian regime turned out to be quite high if measured by the social impact of Catholic doctrine in Spain in subsequent years. Support for democratic and liberal demands meant that the Spanish Church self-limited its political importance (e.g. through repealing in practice the favorable provisions of the 1953 Concordat), consented to the abolition of the former alliance between the altar and the throne, and had to start building its authority anew in a completely different environment, often with little or no support from state institutions. Legal changes moved in lockstep with shifts in mores and with the dramatic drop in the number of practicing Catholics. Fukuyama does not analyse in detail the relationship between the state and the Church in a liberal democracy; moreover, in the early 1990s it was not easy to predict the eventual direction that the social and political evolution in Europe would take within twenty or thirty years. However, for some Polish observers his praise for the Church’s commitment to the democratic and liberal transformation process may appear somewhat suspicious. If the final outcome of such commitment is the gradual ousting of the Catholic religion, not just from public life, which would be somehow understandable, but also from the private lives of ordinary Spaniards’, it is reasonable to pose the question whether the Church can survive in a liberal democracy. In other words: does more liberal democracy mean much less Church and less religion in general, or perhaps there is no direct relationship between the two and everything is grounded in local tradition, history and the strength of the citizens’ convictions? After all, the contemporary history of the Church in Italy or Malta (which are both Catholic and democratic countries) and its relationship with the state have followed quite different paths than in Spain. The author of The End of History only points to problems, but we must find appropriate solutions ourselves – at least in our Polish conditions.

Recurring questions

Revolutions and transformations of political systems around the world, the unprecedented technological progress and global diffusion of knowledge, but at the same time the constantly growing population and depleted natural resources – all this can have an immense impact on the ways in which people perceive themselves and their environment. But will these developments undermine our beliefs about the essence of freedom and human dignity or invalidate the principle that we are, or at least want to be, equal as citizens regardless of our religion, ethnicity and mother tongue? Can justice, broadly understood, only be guaranteed under liberal democracy? Or, perhaps, is the very system of liberal democracy culturally conditioned and, therefore, one that cannot be transplanted to countries that have undergone an evolutionary process different from that of the West? Can the economic inefficiency of a democratic state or its weakness when it comes to ensuring its citizens’ safety serve as legitimate reasons for the introduction of an authoritarian regime that would supposedly be more efficient? We may pose an increasing number of questions and discover ever more dilemmas, but we will still be left with a limited set of those that are most important and fundamental. With time, different variants will emerge of the problems that we have been trying to tackle for hundreds or even thousands of years, still looking for solutions in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and in different parts of the world also in the wisdom of Gautama Buddha, Confucius or Chanakya. Francis Fukuyama frames the issues that he wants to discuss in the easily recognizable intellectual landscape of the Western world. It is difficult to get lost in this familiar cultural forest, which remains very distant – for now – from the exotic jungle that grows outside the European limes. However, his proposed interpretation of history and of the essence of humanity will still arouse controversy and provoke constant disputes, also in Poland, in spite of our belief that he has accurately read the meaning of many phenomena of the modern world, and in spite of our respect for the author’s unflinching faith in democracy.

Dr. Piotr Kłodkowski was visiting professor in the Skalny Center in spring 2019. He is professor at the Centre for Comparative Studies of Civilizations, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. He served as the Polish Ambassador to India from 2009-14.