History continues in Egypt and Libya


'The End of History' by Chris JohnstonAt the end of the Cold War, when perestroika undid the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama wrote his thesis on the 'End of History'.

For a very short time, until it was apparent that 'history' was alive in various forms of ideological struggle, the 'end of history' was an idea — or, more accurately, a catchphrase — that caught on. Now Fukuyama's paradigm has resurfaced, to capture the significance of the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the simmering protest movements elsewhere in the Middle East.

Even the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, has referred to the 'end of history' catchphrase while considering these events (in order to dismiss it).

It is worth exploring what Fukuyama's view of history has to offer as we consider the unfolding events in the Middle East. History is the story we tell ourselves about why and how things have happened, how these events fit into a longer narrative. The emphases we bring to the story-telling matter.

What did Fukuyama consider to be 'history'? In his understanding, it was the clash of competing ideologies enacted through the rivalry of political movements and states. History's end was, according to Fukuyama, a state of affairs in which liberal democracy became the world's pre-eminent political ideology, unchallenged by other rival political doctrines.

Thus, Fukuyama extrapolated from G. W. F. Hegel's 19th century belief in an inexorable movement of history: history in Hegel's mind was a process with a beginning, middle and end and he believed it culminated in an 'absolute moment' that would usher in the final form of state and society.

Does the movement towards political change in the Middle East constitute an 'absolute moment' which forecasts the realisation of democratic governments across the Arab world? Is it at all accurate to think in these terms?

Fukuyama did not argue that the fall of the USSR would usher in democratic regimes across the globe. Rather, he argued that there was now no political idea besides 'liberal democracy' that possessed the same attraction and power.

It is true that such is the contemporary power of the democratic ideal that even authoritarian regimes resort to the language of democracy to cast a veil of legitimacy over themselves. Thus in Russia the former (and perhaps ongoing) Putin regime coined the phrase 'sovereign democracy' to describe Putin's preferred system of government.

And, in Iran and Malaysia, the ideas of the rule of law and elected government have been articulated within various religious and cultural frameworks in ways different from western liberal democratic expressions.

Importantly, Fukuyama worked with a limited definition of 'liberal democracy'. It was 'liberal insofar as it recognises and protects man's universal right to freedom' and democratic 'insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed'.

It would be reasonable to say that it has been these two aims (along with the desire for jobs and affordable food and housing) that have energised the Middle East protests. It is tempting then, to fit the caption 'end of history' on to the story of these events.

But the protest movements will ultimately result in various and dynamic realities. Herein lays the flaw in Fukuyama's — and Hegel's — argument.

To view these events as 'absolute moments' that make a decisive break with the past and a decisive step into the future, is to simplify the future. In each of these countries, there are social, economic and historical factors that will make for complex futures in which the past will remain present.

Hegel saw the 'end of history' in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, where Napoleonic France defeated the Kingdom of Prussia. He understood the defeat to signify the advent of a new order, and saw the victory of French revolutionary ideas forged out of the triumph of military power.

Yet what followed was reaction — the alliance between the great monarchical states of Europe and a prolonged period of unrest, repression and war.

So the triumph of a particular set of ideas does not occur in a temporal 'moment' or event. It depends more on the accumulation of individual and collective human experience and reflection.

Political and social ideas are a means of conceptualising the urgings and desires which people find within them: what Simone Weil described as 'needs of the soul'. They grow and develop, gradually becoming stronger as people learn to articulate them in more compelling ways.

Thus, there is a difference between the desire for freedom and the desire for a liberal democratic order. The desire for freedom may arrive at a different conclusion, beyond Fukuyama's limited definition of liberal democracy.

In any event, wherever it rises, the desire for freedom faces a continuing struggle before it is realised in systems of government directed towards human flourishing.

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: Francis Fukuyama, End of History, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya.Soviet Union, revolution, G. W. F. Hegel



submit a comment

Existing comments

"the desire for freedom faces a continuing struggle before it is realised in systems of government directed towards human flourishing."

That struggle would come to an end if all became subject to the Social Kingship of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Many tell us what they want to do with human society; they dream of changing its natural and traditional foundations; they dream of a Future City built on different principles, and they dare to proclaim these more fruitful and more beneficial than the principles upon which the Christian City rests.

We must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker - the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be setup unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants. omnia instaurare in Christo.

Here we have, founded by Catholics, an inter-denominational association that is to work for the reform of civilization, an undertaking which is above all religious in character; for there is no true civilization without a moral civilization, and no true moral civilization without the true religion: it is a proven truth, a historical fact.

Trent | 14 March 2011

And that Trent, I suppose, would be your version of 'the end of history'? And what would you say to those who have a similar vision for the Restoration of the Caliphate?
Ginger Meggs | 14 March 2011

Trent raises an appalling truth in his desire for us all to subject ourselves to the kingdom of God. Of course he leaves out the fact that this would in effect mean subjecting ourselves to merely a different political system, since God hasn't made many appearances of late.

But let's put Trent's misapprehension about the nature of politics and society aside.

What Trent makes clear is that democracy and theology are uncomfortable partners at best. This is true of the emerging democracy in the Middle East, which could easily be subsumed by Muslim fundamentalists, as it is of contemporary American society.

If the emergence of the Tea Party and the religious right have taught us anything, surely it is that the theocrat will only support democracy as long as democracy is doing the 'right' thing.
Dr Dog | 14 March 2011

Trent should read again John's Gospel, where Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world." " I came into the world to testify to the truth" (John 18:36, 37). That means that we who follow Him in today's world should witness to His truth, and may argue that our social institutions should be founded upon principles derived from it it, such as justice and concern for the poor and disadvantaged, but it does not mean that we should seek to encase it in any particular political system, or found a theocratic society like the Holy Roman Empire, as Trent seems to suggest. I hope I have misunderstood him.
Alan Hogan | 15 March 2011

You have not misunderstood, Alan. Although Trent has not acknowledged it, almost the whole of his posting is lifted from a papal encyclical issued by Pius X in 1910. The encyclical was a very conservative - some might say reactionary - response to the efforts of a group of French students who were trying to 'raise up and re-educate the working class'.

The major problem for Pius seems to have been the way that the students were going about it was challenging the existing social order and traditional ecclesiastical authority. They were actually (shock, horror!) cooperating with Protestants and non-believers in doing good , and all this at a time when France was legislating for the separation of Church and State. For the detail, go to www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10notre.htm
Ginger Meggs | 15 March 2011

Great piece. Thanks for it!
Jim McD, Sj | 19 March 2011


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up