Ethics & Public Policy Center

‘The End of History’ Reconsidered

Published in National Review Online on December 5, 2006



Over at Hugh Hewitt’s blog, Dean Barnett has some interesting thoughts on how Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis has been holding up.  I agree with Barnett that Fukuyama’s brilliant book is unjustly dismissed on the basis of a superficial reading of the title — the worst sort of judging a book by its cover.  Fukuyama’s End of History is a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless.  And Barnett is right that Fukuyama’s “last man” chapters are dead on, and of great continued relevance.

Barnett takes note of what Fukuyama has to say about Islam in The End of History, and is impressed by how prophetic Fukuyama seems to be.  Yet Fukuyama’s response to Islam post-9/11 has not followed the path described by Barnett.  Instead of treating Islam as a “grave threat,” Fukuyama has downplayed the danger.  Shortly after 9/11, Fukuyama treated the attacks as a noisy but ultimately futile rear-guard action, unlikely to derail the worldwide advance of modernity.  Fukuyama has followed this line in his turn against the war, and his debate with Charles Krauthammer, where Fukuyama explicitly denies that Islamist terror poses an “existential threat” to our society.

To acknowledge Islamist terror as an “existential threat” to our civilization is to give up the “end of history” thesis.  Fukuyama’s thesis does not hold that big or interesting historical events have stopped happening.  Yet Fukuyama’s thesis does require us to believe that liberal democracy represents the only likely future for the world as a whole.  That’s why Fukuyama can’t accept the idea that Islamists might actually gain and retain control of a substantial portion of the globe–or perhaps even defeat the West.

I ended my recent NRODT review of Mark Steyn’s America Alone with a comparison of Steyn and Fukuyama:

All this makes Steyn the new anti-Fukuyama. America Alone is Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” cubed. Huntington envisioned relatively stable ongoing conflict between well-established civilizational zones. Steyn is talking about the collapse of the European heart of the West, and even its partial recruitment to the Islamist camp.About a month after 9/11, Francis Fukuyama responded to claims that the terror attack had falsified his “end of history” thesis, and validated Huntington’s “clash” instead. Fukuyama dismissed Islamist terror as a futile rearguard action by traditionalists hoping to derail the unstoppable “freight train” of modernity. “I see no lack of a will to prevail in the United States today,” said Fukuyama. Democracy, Fukuyama noted, is spreading to more and more parts of the world. Immigrants flood the West and “eventually assimilate to Western values.” Above all, insisted Fukuyama, Islamism has “virtually no appeal in the contemporary world apart from those who are culturally Islamic to begin with.” Besides, Fukuyama assured us, modern Islamic societies simply aren’t viable. In effect, America Alone provides an answer to each of Fukuyama’s post-9/11 claims. Half the West is already doomed, says Steyn, which will leave America isolated and vulnerable. Europe’s will is broken, while America’s fighting spirit is halfway out the window. Democracy may spread — and must spread — says Steyn, as our only shot at stopping a rapidly proliferating Islamism. Yet the West’s watery multiculturalism has proven incapable of inspiring loyalty among immigrants, who are assimilating Europe to Islam instead. Even if only Muslims are radicalized, their numbers are large enough to defeat us. And given those numbers, and the resulting cultural pressures, the small stream of Western converts could someday become a rushing river. On one point, Steyn would agree with Fukuyama. An Islamic Republic of France or an Islamic States of America would not be a viable society. Unfortunately, we know that “History” has proven all too eager to waste precious human lives and decades on dangerous and ultimately non-viable social experiments.

So it’s by no means clear to me that Fukuyama has got Islam right.  And his “end of history” thesis is at the root of the problem.  In a 2002 essay called “The Future of History,” I offered a detailed assessment of the Fukuyama/Huntington dispute in light of 9/11.  My main criticism of Fukuyama was that his analysis of democratization works very well with large-scale modern tyrannies like communism and fascism, but fails when applied to more traditional societies.  (The term “Islamo-fascism” blurs this key distinction.)

Post-9/11, Fukuyama himself has tried to analyze Islamism as a barely disguised form of fascism — a modern tyranny in traditional guise.  (See Fukuyama’s Commentary Magazine essay, “Modernizing Islam,” and the response from critics, myself included.)    I think this is a mistake.  While there are surely some “modern” elements in contemporary Islamism, traditional social practices like cousin marriage, collective family honor, and veiling are very much at the root of the problems we face with Islam and Islamism.  (See my “Root Causes.”) In short, I think Fukuyama gets Islam wrong.  He underestimates the immensity of the threat, and misses the traditionalist social practices at the root of Islam’s failure to assimilate to modernity.

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