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Alienation and recognition

Drawing from the philosophies of Socrates, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Hobbes, Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy is ascendant because it resolves a fundamental conflict in human nature. On the one hand, everyone seeks domination, and on the other hand, everyone wants recognition.

Prior to liberal democracy, political systems almost universally entrenched the conflict through hierarchical relations and rigidity of power. This has proven untenable in the long run because of individuals’ desire to be seen as worthy and every society’s quest to affirm its identity. Liberal democracy reconciles the contradictions through its ethos of equality, justice, egalitarianism, and liberty. Fukuyama writes in this regard that “the understanding of history as a ‘struggle for recognition’ is actually a very useful and illuminating way of seeing the contemporary world.”6

Tumultuous origins

Yet, the road to liberal democracy has never been easy. As Fukuyama notes, democracy didn’t take its current semblance until the United States declared independence from Britain in 1776. And even then, it went through considerable convulsion and evolution to where it is today.

The establishment of constitutional democracy by the United States was the culmination of a political movement that began in England about five and a half centuries earlier in 1215. The movement began as a resolution of a feud between wealthy English barons and a weak and unpopular King John. Concerned about a breakdown in civic order, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened with a compromise proposal. The document became the nucleus of a set of reforms the barons presented to the king and pressured him into signing on June 15, 1215. This was the Magna Carta. It specified certain rights for the barons, among them due process and the reduction of levies. It also called for the independence of churches to practice their religion.

Though highly limited in application, the Magna Carta has long been hailed as the beginning of liberal democracy. However, it has been a long journey. Its maturation took several bloody civil wars and revolutions in Europe and North America. And the process continues. An anniversary story in the New York Times on May 15, 2015, carried the headline, “Magna Carta, Still Posing a Challenge at 800.”

The same headline would probably hold true centuries from now. And the challenges would most likely be of the same variety: the nature of governance, individual sovereignty vs. government authority, individual rights vs. communal interests, limits of political and artistic expressions, and freedom of and from religion.

One of the provisions of the Magna Carta was the establishment of an advisory council for the King. The council ultimately evolved into a bicameral parliament which increasingly began to assert its primacy. The ensuing power struggle led to a protracted civil war in the 1600s between monarchists and parliamentarians. Ultimately, the latter won and the reigning monarch. King Charles I, was beheaded. “The first middle-class revolution in history thus asserted itself successfully with decisive and unheard of audacity.”7

Even then true democracy still took several more centuries to evolve in the UK. It took many more contestations to whittle down monarchical powers. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the House of Commons became the effective government and the monarchy essentially ceremonial.

The establishment of democracy in the United States similarly took a protracted war of independence that the colonies ultimately won. Europe’s democratization took many more wars. Among them was the bloody and very influential French revolution that lasted from 1789 to 1799. Like the English civil war of 1649, it culminated in the beheading of the country’s monarch, King Louis XVI. Yet, despite its motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” France remained a country under dictatorial caprice for several more years.

Indeed, despite advancements in democratic governance, the struggle between despotism and liberty was still playing out in Europe about 140 years later. It took World War 11—“the war to end all wars”—to consolidate democracy in Western Europe. And that was because the Allies won. Had the war ended differently, Europe might have regressed into despotism, possibly feudalism. Rather the triumph of American-led Allies over the German-led Axis not only consolidated democracy in much of Western Europe but led to its expansion elsewhere.

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