End of History? -- Francis Fukuyama's Thesis Won't Fly
End of History?

Milton Fisk analyzes Francis Fukuyama's infamous thesis --
and argues that it won't fly even as a new banner for the
conservative-neoliberal elite.

     With the publication of The End of History and the Last
Man in 1992, Francis Fukuyama established himself as a
leading conservative intellectual. Other conservatives have
raised their voices against the cynicism, egoism and
relativism supposedly resulting from liberal, postmodern, or
post-Marxist habits of mind. But Fukuyama goes beyond
carping to set conservative values and institutions in a
narrative structured with fundamental ideas from the Western
     How successful is he at this task? Will conservatives
find in his outlook a context for their thinking? Does he
offer a new challenge to socialists in efforts to renovate
our own tradition?
     On the surface, Fukuyama's End of History is a
celebration of the "new world order" proclaimed by George
Bush at the time of the Gulf War. But it is also much more.
The book contains a theory, drawing on Plato's view of the
soul and Hegel's dialectic of spirit, that legitimates this
new order of spreading "liberal democracy" by establishing
its philosophical origins. Fukuyama does not hesitate to
identify liberal democracy with capitalist democracy. He
argues that the debacle of Soviet-style communism has left
capitalist democracy unchallenged as the only system with
global appeal; and he contends that this appeal is not
transient but has deep roots.
     In Fukuyama's view, the appeal of capitalist democracy
lies in the convergence of two connected but distinct
sequences. First, capitalism is allegedly the most efficient
of economic systems, and since states depend on economic
efficiency for the military power enabling them to survive,
history has moved in the direction of capitalism. Communism
is seen as but a detour in this progression. Second,
democracy is portrayed as the natural outcome of a struggle
by humans for recognition of their dignity by others. In
contrast to pre-democratic societies with only one-sided
recognition -- the slave recognizing the slave-owner, or the
subject recognizing the king -- capitalist democracy accords
mutual recognition to the equal persons living within it.
     Fukuyama doesn't believe either capitalism or democracy
necessitates the other. But together he thinks they satisfy
the deepest urges of humanity -- the urges for goods and for
recognition. So when joined, capitalism and democracy
provide an optimal mechanism for humanity. With communism --
understood as centralized power that not only ruins the
economy but undermines civil society -- on the dustbin of
history, we have reached a democratic capitalist order that
exists as "the end of history." Capitalist democracy can
only spread; it can't be superseded.
     Fukuyama's optimism about democratic capitalism is
tempered only by his Nietzschean worries about the blandness
of life in this order. Great deeds, authority based on
talents, and moral heroism become things of the past, for
they conflict with both cautious bourgeois calculation and
unexciting democratic egalitarianism. Fukuyama believes this
can produce a dangerous situation, leading either to a
craving for personal adventure that threatens others or to a
willingness to follow demagogues promising to satisfy
irrational instincts.
     Fukuyama is not worried by either conflicts between
exploiter and exploited within capitalism or conflicts
between the formal democracy allowed to citizens and the
substantive political power of dominant groups. He seems to
think that these conflicts, which are associated with
violations of a sense of fairness, are no threat to
capitalist democracy. The threat for him comes from the lack
of opportunity for the kinds of deeds the old aristocracy
could perform, being unconstrained by recognizing the
dignity of the multitude.


     Fukuyama does not content himself, as libertarian
conservatives do, with justifying free markets and private
property. To him, markets and property, which are based on a
combination of reason and self-interest, are amply
justified. But they are only part of the story justifying
today's new world order. The rest involves a striving to
realize values which cannot be reduced to rational self-
interest. Fukuyama does not appeal to a particular moral
tradition to ground the values he promotes; he appeals to
human nature itself. This distinguishes him from
communitarians of different sorts: those who defend the
values of family, church, and nation (Russell Kirk); those
who emphasize support for the products of the American
experience (Irving Kristol); and those who celebrate the
intellectual tradition stemming from ancient Greece (Allan
     Like these communitarians, Fukuyama is a conservative
since he is committed to free markets and private property
and to staying within what he calls the formal democracy of
universal suffrage, which involves only limited popular
participation. But unlike the communitarian conservatives,
he relies for values, not on a moral community, but on what
he takes to be a universal of human nature -- that we all
seek recognition and won't be fully satisfied till it is
     This appeal to human nature is Fukuyama's way out of
the relativism resulting from an ultra-liberalism that makes
a fetish of tolerance for any idea and culture. For
Fukuyama, the universal struggle for recognition of the
underdog, for example, is rooted in what humans are. This
struggle has led to an egalitarian value system in which
compassion becomes a virtue. Compassion in turn has become
the basis for humanitarian reforms. Thus, he argues, modern
capitalist democracies are moving, however slowly, toward
abandoning capital punishment, and they deal harshly with
leaders responsible for wars in which large numbers of their
own citizens become casualties.
     Since Fukuyama's ideas rationalize the post-Cold War
optimism about capitalist democracy, they have a wide
appeal. Fukuyama's unquestioned ability to construct
plausible and subtle accounts of major trends lend weight to
the suggestion that his views could become the framework of
the conservative and neoliberal establishment for some time
to come. Fukuyama develops his ideas in rich historical and
philosophical detail and spins an unrivalled argumentative
web around his proposals. He sees countervailing tendencies
to those that support his central ideas, and doesn't shrink
from admitting the problems they pose. He is, for the most
part, admirably restrained in the use of cheap shots at the
left, relying for persuasion on his own careful
constructions. In short, Fukuyama is no vulgar ideologue,
but a bold and incisive one.  
     Fukuyama also benefits from more concrete advantages.
His associations with the State Department's Policy Planning
Staff, with Allan Bloom's Olin Center at the University of
Chicago, and currently with the RAND Corporation, an Air
Force think tank supported by government contracts, give his
conceptions tangible political weight.
     And yet... Fukuyama's ideas won't, I think, become a
framework for establishment thinking. His failure, in my
view, stems from his neglect of the disruptive power of
those forces he systematically underplays. He offers the
conservative-neoliberal elites no way of analyzing the
actual challenges they will continue to face. Yet those
elites have as one of their chief tasks the mastering of
such disruptive forces.


     The first problem concerns Fukuyama's idea of "mutual
recognition" as having been achieved in capitalist
democracy. For Fukuyama, the battle for mutual recognition
has been won because people have their votes counted equally
and they aren't kept from an education because of their
color. In other words, we treat one another as persons, or
at least we do better than we used to. The problem Fukuyama
foresees for our society is not a failure of recognition but
the ennui of a homogeneous society, an ennui that can lead
to breaks with democracy. Fukuyama would agree with Plato
that democracies breed demagogues.
     But Fukuyama's view that recognition has been amply
realized is insensitive to the systemic failures of
recognition in capitalist democracies. Fukuyama operates on
the assumption -- common to much postindustrial-society
theory -- that class perished with capitalist democracy,
since class domination involves only a one-way recognition.
What has replaced class is simple economic inequality, and
that is based on different talents and different cultures
about work rather than on anyone's refusal to recognize
someone else as a person with the right to political and
moral equality.
     Fukuyama doesn't raise questions about the nature of
control over the workplace and its implications for mutual
recognition. This question about control goes beyond the
issue of inequality of income and wealth. There is the
pervasive conviction among working people -- documented in
that minor classic The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard
Sennett and Jonathan Cobb -- that work under capitalism
involves, because of its kind of workplace control, a loss
of dignity. One doesn't have to hark back to work under
feudalism to find a lack of mutual recognition. It exists in
our bureaucracies and factories. It is characterized by an
absence of consideration of the employee as more than an
instrument for realizing pre-given goals. An instrument is
not recognized as autonomous, and hence not as an equal, by
those who use it.
     Personnel experts know the phenomenon of loss of
dignity at the workplace well enough to have tried to
address it in various schemes for "team work." These
schemes, though, don't change the basic sources of decision
making, but merely bring workers in on certain phases of
implementation. President Clinton's labor secretary, Robert
Reich, wants to believe that mutual recognition in the
workplace is possible so that confrontation can be replaced
by cooperation. But he can't convince the numerous employees
whose dignity is regularly under attack that their employers
either want or are capable of mutual recognition.
     Capitalist elites are constantly revolutionizing work
in order to displace the dissatisfaction resulting from its
undemocratic character. The team concept and the knowledge
revolution are only the latest examples. The problem gets
graver as larger segments of the workforce come to have
higher expectations for realizing their autonomy. Fukuyama
would like to solve this problem simply by appealing to the
concept of a rational division of labor that assigns workers
to jobs that call for different talents from those needed by
managers. But the very nature of this "rational division of
labor" is to limit the control workers have and to deny them
recognition. The battle to save capitalism by preventing
expectations of autonomy from causing political problems is
an ongoing one for establishment elites, but one that
Fukuyama would let them ignore.


     There's another problem Fukuyama neglects: the problem
of how mutual recognition can be compatible with the means
adopted to establish consent within a capitalist democracy.
This is a critical omission. The circle of the disaffected
cannot be allowed to expand. It is imperative within a
capitalist democracy to manufacture consent as one way of
controlling disaffection. This imperative is carried out
through the media.
     But the spread of mutual recognition is clearly
incompatible with the level of media manipulation that
exists in our society. Such manipulation attempts to turn
persons into tools of policy. The spread of recognition
would call for an end to this manufacture of consent. A
priority for a society that was actually advancing toward
mutual recognition would be a genuinely pluralist press, one
without a vested interest in the status quo, and one
committed to broadening rather than constricting debate.
     Fukuyama's hypothesis of the end of history would imply
that there is already a tendency to uncouple the media from
wealth, to make the media less reliant on state sources for
copy, and to discourage the media's identifying itself with
the establishment's foreign policy consensus. Studies like
Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky make
a persuasive case that there is no such tendency. Any group
that attempted to fight for major media reform is
immediately branded extremist. Yet so long as such reform
doesn't happen, the one-sided recognition of the
master/slave relation, with which Fukuyama begins his
discussion of recognition, is reproduced in the
media/viewer-reader relation.
     Fukuyama's capitalist democracy is a Garden of Eden
variety. There is a contented workforce and an establishment
with apparently no need for legitimation. No wonder then
that the only problem he finds there is boredom. Those who
think they have grievances with capitalist democracy, like
African Americans, have only their own failure to blame.
They don't promote "individual achievement" but instead
focus on a collective Afro-centrism. Fukuyama's smug
dismissal of the need of the oppressed to organize
independently gives a racist twist to his concept of the end
of history.
     But even the establishment in this society must, on
pain of its own dissolution, reject this Garden of Eden
view. It needs, instead, to take steps that defuse the
explosive issues such as the denial of worker autonomy,
general disgust with the state, and the alienation of
African Americans in a racist society. A useful ideology for
the ruling group starts from acknowledging, not ignoring,
these problems.


     We turn now to the international matters central to
Fukuyama's view of the new world order. He argues that the
world is moving toward a state of peace. With the demise of
fascism and communism as the great challenges to democracy,
imperialism and war are being eliminated. Without the Cold
War rift on the Security Council between powerful
democracies and nondemocracies, the U.N. can begin to
promote international security. Of course, so long as lesser
powers remain nondemocratic, democratic countries will be
involved in wars with them. But as Fukuyama reads the
record, it shows that capitalist democracies do not have
imperialist designs in such wars, and also that they do not
go to war against one another.
     To justify this rosy view, Fukuyama goes back to the
struggle for mutual recognition. So long as rulers were
accustomed to establishing their superiority over their
compatriots, they did not hesitate to try to establish their
superiority over other nations as well. The drive for mutual
recognition allegedly changed all this. The use of
subjugation as a way of establishing self-worth, was
overtaken by the practice of mutual recognition. But it was
the dignity of all others and not just that of one's
compatriots that, for Fukuyama, had become the norm. This
universalism led to the world-historical defeat of
imperialism and war.
     Fukuyama's develops these points further in his answer
to the charge that nationalism seems incompatible with this
new age of peace. In doing so he admits that there is a rise
of nationalism, but he sees it as part of a transition away
from the great empires, like the Soviet Union, that have
collapsed. In the established democracies, nationalism has
been turned into a private matter, much the way that
religion became a private matter in the original capitalist
democracies. As private, it allows individuals to enjoy
their distinctive national cultures, but prohibits
chauvinist behavior.
     There are several ways this view on international
matters fails to serve establishment elites today. In this
first place, it is so sweeping that it undermines the
ongoing and only-too-real efforts by advanced capitalist
democracies at economic and political domination over other
countries. These efforts present Fukuyama with a dilemma.
Either he denies they exist, or else he acknowledges and
must condemn them, trying to paint them as aberrations of
capitalist democracy. But attempts at dominating other
countries emerge directly from the logic of the growth of
capital. So Fukuyama must either ignore an imperialist
reality that establishment elites are quite preoccupied
with, or else he subverts his end-of-history thesis.
     It is one thing for Fukuyama to believe that Third
World countries have nothing wrong with them that a turn
away from mercantilist import substitution toward free-
market capitalism won't cure. But his principles don't
provide any ideological cover or legitimacy for first world
countries imposing free-market capitalism or democracy on
Third World countries. Yet conservative and neoliberal
elites in capitalist democratic establishments seek and need
such legitimacy to carry on everyday geopolitical and geo-
economic tasks.
     The second problem the establishment will have with
Fukuyama's international views is that capitalism still
resorts quite frequently to aggressive nationalism, often
mixed with racism. We don't need to go to the Balkans to
show that aggressive nationalism is alive and well.
Manufactured concern about the supply of oil to the U.S. led
in 1990-91 to a fever pitch of nationalist vengefulness
against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Hyped up concern about
transshipments of drugs to the U.S. from Panama led in 1989
to nationalist outrage against Manuel Noriega, on which a
bloody invasion was based. The establishment's ability to
push the nationalist button when it needs to runs directly
counter to Fukuyama's claim that capitalist democracies have
outgrown nationalism by privatizing it.


     In Fukuyama's book title, "the last man" is the citizen
of a capitalist democracy where equality is fully realized.
Will the last man be satisfied with mutual recognition? Or
must there be scope for achievement that wins recognition of
superiority? If justice has been achieved, Fukuyama worries
that people will still need something to struggle for, even
if this means struggling against justice. To make the point,
Fukuyama slanders the French students of 1968, saying that
in a society that gave them everything they escaped their
boredom by trying to destroy their society.
     Could Fukuyama perhaps accept a communitarian way out
of this problem? His pluralist democracy would insure
tolerance for communities existing inside it with a
diversity of substantive goals. Each of these communities
might give special recognition those most effective in
promoting its particular goals. Tolerance and recognition of
superiority would be joined so the last man could avoid
boredom while being a democrat.
     But Fukuyama rejects this option in favor of classical
liberalism. He thinks communities would tend toward
intolerance of one another. Each would project its values on
the others and demand high respect from the other
communities of those of its members it judges superior.
Understandably, Fukuyama doesn't want to sacrifice the
rights of democratic citizens to the intolerance such
communities -- each bound tightly together by its own
morality -- show toward one another.
     In this matter, Fukuyama's entire approach is flawed by
an individualist assumption. He believes that satisfaction
can come only through recognition of individual superiority.
Fukuyama cannot challenge this assumption since his
historical dialectic of recognition traces recognition back
to the individual male warrior's urge to defeat and subdue
anyone posing as an equal. Even outside its warlike context,
this urge will reappear in the form of an urge to be
recognized by free persons as superior. Mutual recognition,
which leads to democracy, becomes a compromise that doesn't
eradicate the primal urge for superiority.
     But is this individualist assumption of an urge for
superiority really primordial? Or is it rather a cultural
product of dominant groups? The urge for superiority is not
one that even all males have. Fukuyama doesn't suggest that
women have this urge, so they might not be bored with
democracy. And his prescription for avoiding dissatisfaction
applies only to those in dominant groups: he recommends the
highs of capitalist entrepreneurship, a career in foreign
policy, Himalayan mountaineering or Shogun tea ceremonies.
This whole notion about boredom in democracy is really a bit
phoney. It comes down to the fact that dominant groups want
to use their privileges and don't want to be constrained by
democracy. This confirms the socialist belief that the lower
classes must be the guardians of democracy.
     What Fukuyama overlooks are the satisfactions within
capitalist democracies that don't involve recourse to the
recognition of superiority demanded by dominant groups. Such
are the satisfactions of working collectively for justice in
the many areas where capitalist democracies don't offer
"mutual recognition" -- fighting against domination by a
powerful nation, class, race, and gender. Fukuyama can't
imagine how many rewarding things there are left to do for
those whose connections won't get them into the State
Department or whose pocket books won't get them to the
     And after equality has eliminated the satisfactions of
the collective struggle for justice against dominant groups?
Well, there will still be collective effort on behalf of
making social life more rewarding. This will be the effort
of people discussing their differences in an atmosphere of
mutual respect. It will be an effort within a community, but
not a community in which members try to become superior by
advancing community goals. The satisfaction will, instead,
derive from the joint effort to realize those goals, an
effort in which everyone's dignity is recognized. This is,
though, a socialist community, not one based on older
patterns of domination.