History is fickle. In 1988, it played a mean trick on Francis Fukuyama. After reading Mikhail Gorbachev's speech in support of the view that socialism equals competition, the soft-spoken policy analyst telephoned a friend to say: "If this is true, we've reached the end of history." That phrase was Hegel's, and it quickly proved to be among the most misunderstood catchwords of our time. It turned heads and whipped up disagreements. It also had the effect of helping turn Fukuyama into a global star - but at the cruel price of exposing faultlines in his Big Idea.
Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992) proved to be a bestseller. Inspired by an essay published in 1989 in The National Interest, its timing was perfect. The book attempted nothing less than the revival of a 19th-century liberal version of the belief in human progress.
To those who asked what is so good about the West, Fukuyama replied that liberal democracy constitutes the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and the "final form of human government". He proposed that history was coming to an end, not in the sense that clocks would stop ticking and novel events (European union, war in Kosovo) would wither away, but rather that unfolding events no longer contained counter-trends. "What I suggested had come to an end," Fukuyama told me this week during a visit to promote his new book The Great Disruption (Profile Books, pounds 20), "was not the flow of events, even large and grave events, but History: that is, history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times."
The reasons for the end of history - Fukuyama still believes - are economic and political. Modern scientific knowledge and our ability to dominate nature through technology is "cumulative, a coherent motor, that drives things along in a single direction". The social disruptions to family and community, which his new work explores, naturally follow. Modern capitalism, he says, has been marked by periods of "creative destruction", driven by innovations from the steam engine to the computer chip.
So, during the past few decades, we have been living through the revolutionary shift into a postindustrial economy. Manufacturing gives way to services, educational requirements rise, "smart" information technologies becomes pervasive. "The arrival of cheap and ubiquitous information has had a profoundly democratising effect," he says. Little wonder that giant firms, big unions, and centralised states are feeling the pinch, or that Argentinian- style dictatorships and Soviet-type regimes have collapsed. "Silicon Valley is the Florence of the late 20th century," he quips. The growth of technological complexity, and the kinds of knowledge required to manage it, "almost inevitably dictate a high degree of decentralisation in economic decision- making," he continues. "Inevitably, this means relying on markets. It also means democracy."
Fukuyama sometimes sounds like an ex Marxist believer in techno-economic determinism. He tries to dispel such suspicions by saying there's a second force driving human history upwards and onwards: "the desire of all human beings to have their fundamental human dignity recognised by those around them".
This struggle for mutual recognition knows no limits. It's a universal impulse. "Human beings do have a certain fixed nature. Men and women, for instance, really are different by nature. They really do have different psychological characteristics and reproductive strategies," he says.
I object that his talk of "human nature" is nostalgic for the days when men were men and women were women, even that it is incompatible with the pluralist toleration that marks democracy. Fukuyama pauses, goes on to say that the human desire to own private property is natural, and then we go round in circles. He concludes that the "natural" human wish for recognition can be satisfied only in a world governed by the liberal-democratic states that underwrite markets and basic human rights.
So much for mustard gas, aerial bombardment, tanks, the Gulag, apartheid, genocide, and other features of our cruel century. Fukuyama winces when I suggest his claim about the End of History treats such events as aberrations. He replies that this century, "although it has created a lot of victims in its path, has tended to move in one direction, like the stock market".
Some of his critics have smelled smugness in such words. He says that Margaret Thatcher told him that his belief in progress toward markets and democracy, if true, would make people complacent. He reiterates that the march of market-liberal reason, while not exactly inevitable, is driven by "the integrating forces of economic modernisation and technological change" which "tend to blur the boundaries between civilisations and promote a homogeneous set of political and economic institutions."
Fukuyama's calm self-confidence seems nurtured by stardom. How did he manage to become famous? Luck and timing certainly helped, he admits. "The year 1989 saw a world-historical change in our political climate, and people needed an explanation, which I provided, even if almost everybody disagreed with me." So too did the cosmopolitanism of his arguments. Such worldliness has been helped along by an elaborate personal website (http:// mason.gmu.edu/ffukuyam/) and by his ability to write impressively about a myriad of different authors, events and contexts. Less charitably, I put it to him that his fame has been bolstered by his reinforcement of the prevailing neo-liberal common sense; that he's a thinker of the status quo. He nods in agreement. I frown.
Fukuyama's presumption that time is now standing still because liberal democracy has freed itself from the devil of contradiction is surely overdrawn. Market forces regularly suffer market failures. Markets rub constantly against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy, so that, for instance, the rights of private property often destroy the principles of public freedom and equality.
Fukuyama tells me that liberal democracies don't fight each other, and that they could improve their security by enlarging democratic "zones of peace". He doesn't accept that concentrations of weapons of war and violent conflicts around the globe disrupt our civilised "zones of peace". Nor does he note that the uncertainties and fears produced by the most "advanced" market democracies - concerns about losing our job, or wondering who we are - make them prone to the growth of bigoted ideologies.
If, as Fukuyama rightly maintains, humans strive for recognition, then we are bound to strive for innovation - to grow passion fruit on Mars, perhaps. Thus we bring novelty into the world. Hidden in Fukuyama's thesis as well is a basic epistemological problem. How is it possible to know in advance what time will bring to posterity? And why is it that market democracies are exceptions to Anaximander's Rule - that all human orders are permanently prone to being judged guilty for their injustices, and to pay the corresponding penalties?
Hegel thought he solved this problem by supposing that his own grasp of history embodied a God-given consciousness of its logic. There are times when Francis Fukuyama talks in the same vein. "History is directional, progressive," he tells me. "Liberal democracy and market-oriented economic order are the only viable options for modern societies". His words have a whiff of millenarian Christianity. They bear glad tidings of a better world to come, all the while preaching the need for hope.
Fukuyama avoids what many since Hegel have seen: that the morality of the means and ends we use to get through life cannot be judged in advance, that they can only be properly understood with hindsight. Maybe it is wise to see that history is capricious, and to grasp that pleasant surprises and disasters may always be around the corner. Which would imply that we should get rid of the early 19th-century idea of the end of history - and instead see the "end of history" has itself come to an end.
Francis Fukuyama, a biography
Francis Fukuyama was born in Chicago in 1952; his father was a Congregationalist minister. After degrees at Cornell and Harvard, he joined the political science department of the Rand Corporation in 1979. In 1981- 2 and again in 1989, he was a policy planner with the US State Department, the second time as deputy director for European political-military affairs. He is now the Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a consultant to the Rand Corporation. His bestselling book The End of History and the Last Man appeared in 1992, followed by Trust: the social virtues and the creation of prosperity in 1995 and, this month, by The Great Disruption: human nature and the reconstitution of social order (Profile Books). Francis Fukuyama is married to Laura Holmgren and has three children.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies