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Skepticism on convergence

The overall trajectory notwithstanding, skeptics and critics still reject the convergence thesis. There remain too many deficiencies in and challenges to liberal democracy to warrant the pronouncement of “the end of history,” they say.

First, the quality of the global democratization has been checkered at best. Second, even contemporary champions of the Enlightenment, such as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, are having second thoughts. They now argue that the Enlightenment’s wholly secular logic has left an existentialist vacuum in humanity.11 And third, liberal democracy has spurred the social equivalent of the runaway train, the absence of “moral moorings,” as Newsweek columnist George Will once put it.

And then there are criticisms from the perspective of cultural relativism. British journalist Jenni Russell encapsulated this view in her sharp critique of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s assertion that democratic values are universal. “These sentences betrayed a total ignorance of the range of customs, convictions and prejudices that govern human behaviour in a multitude of different societies,” Russell wrote in The Guardian (London) on July 27, 2007.

Blair talked as if he thought that people around the world were essentially blank sheets, who would adopt all western values wholesale as soon as they encountered a can of Coke, a job in a clothing factory and a gender rights worker.

From this logic, Russell offered this explanation of the otherwise inexplicable horror of Islamist violence: People are driven by metaphysical beliefs about society to commit heinous crimes, even against their better judgments. That is because people’s sense of self and identity are determined by what obtains around them and a threat to that identity is thus a threat to the self. “The mistake here is that the modern liberal belief—all men are equal—has been transmuted into the false idea that all people think the same,” Russell argued.

Fukuyama’s response to these criticisms is essentially that he never intended “the end of history” to suggest the end of political problems or ideological conflicts. Rather, it is that liberal democracy represents the most promising platform from which they may be—and are being—resolved.12 The argument is much like Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy that it is the worst kind of government excerpt for everything else that has been tried.

Since Fukuyama’s exuberant declaration, there have, indeed, been several challenges to the thesis of convergence. Most notable is the rise of anti-Western Islamist rhetoric and related violence. To Islamists, democratic values are “alien values” that the West seeks to use to undermine Islamic values and perhaps destroy Islam. Then, there is the rising nationalism in Europe that also undercuts some of the assumptions of liberal democracy.

These developments have tended to support the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s claim that the post-Cold War era would be characterized by a “clash of civilizations.”13 Yet, Fukuyama—who was Huntington’s student at Harvard—has not wavered in his conviction that we are at the “end of history.” He subsequently took a dimmer view of global convergence, however, but has not abandoned the thesis.14

“[T]he aspiration to live in a free society is pretty widely shared,” he has said. “But the actual ability to create a democracy is actually quite difficult because you need institutions and those are hard to create,” Fukuyama said in an interview on National Public Radio on September 27, 2014. “I think that as societies become more middle-class, better educated, wealthier, there is a universal human desire to participate in politics. And that’s happened in one country after another.”

The challenge, as in Europe up to the mid-20th century, is to establish enduring democratic structures. “I think the problem is that actually getting to democracy is a pretty hard thing because you really need institutions,” Fukuyama said in the interview. “And that’s where we’ve been falling down over the last few years. But in the long sweep of history, I do think there’s a certain reason to expect that.”

One may add in this regard that Russell’s loss-of-identity case against convergence applies to all challenges to the traditional order. It applied to the Reformation, and it was the major case against the Enlightenment. It becomes a more potent issue in the context of Muslim countries only because democratic ideals have been extolled as Western values.

Notes

  • 1 Doug Stone, “Foreword,” in Eric D. Patterson and John Gallagher (eds.), Debating the War of Ideas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 2009), viii.
  • 2 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), 211.
  • 3 Fukuyama, End of History, xii.

Theodore H. Von Laue, “From Fukuyama to Reality: A Critical Essay,” in Timothy Burns (ed.), After History? Francis Fukuyama and His Critics (Lanham, MD: Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1994), 23-37.

Among other sources, these views are to be found in After History? Francis Fukuyama and His Critics, ed. Timothy Burns (Lanham, MD: Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1994) and Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008).

Fukuyama, End of History, 145.

William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers: Plato to Present (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1960), 358.

Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 12.

Fukuyama, End of History, 50.

Habermas’s second thoughts in this regard are summarized by Stanley Fish in a blog for the New York Times, April 12,2011, “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing?” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/ does-reason-know-what-it-is-missing/.

Francis Fukuyama, “Reflections on the End of History, Five Years Later,” History and Theory. Theme Issue 34: World Historians and Their Critics, 34, 2(1995): 27-43.'

Huntington originally published the view in an essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 72, (Summer 1993), 22-49; then followed it up with a book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Fukuyama, “Reflections on the End of History?'

 
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