The End of the End of History
What does it mean to live in a world in which history has rusted under the monstrous weight of the permanent now?
March 25, 2019
Mar 25, 2019
13 Min read time
What does it mean to live in a world in which history has rusted under the monstrous weight of the permanent now?
Among the prizes at stake in the endless war of politics is history itself. The battle for power is always a battle to determine who gets remembered, how they will be recalled, where and in what forms their memories will be preserved. In this battle, there is no room for neutral parties: every history and counter-history must fight and scrap and claw and spread and lodge itself in the world, lest it be forgotten or forcibly erased. All history, in this sense, is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.
All history is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.
The greatest act of empire, of course, is to declare the whole messy, brutal process finished, to climb to the top of the trash heap and trumpet one’s reign as the culmination of all history. The greatest act of history, on the other hand, is to reveal such declarations to be always premature. Seneca’s Pax Romana announced a history stilled by the glorious rise of Augustus, the “sun that never set” shone on the image of time frozen at the height of the British Empire—and the world spun madly on.
Nearly thirty years ago, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously called the ball game once more. In a 1989 essay, which he expanded into the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama prophesied that the fall of communism signaled “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Of course, the “end of history” didn’t mean the end of military conflicts, social upheavals, or economic booms and busts. It did mean, however, that all boats were ultimately heading to the same shore; with no more serious contenders on the world stage, all things were trending toward a global order in which the marriage of market capitalism and liberal democracy would enjoy eternal dominance. Thus, in Fukuyama’s view, the endless roil of intra- and international conflicts that have continually punctured our world during the past three decades has nothing to do with any world-historical battle between competing social orders. Rather, it merely represents the thrashing of those parts of the world that are still mired “in history” as they are compelled down the inevitable path to joining the “posthistorical” world.
There is a quasi-religious overtone to all of this—everything in the past has been moving toward a telos, a predestined end. The age of global neoliberalism, with a sort of egg wash of liberal democracy, stands as the inevitable endgame of “mankind’s ideological evolution,” the output that the entire Rube Goldberg machine of human history has always been grinding toward.
It is important to note, though, that it never really mattered whether this was what anyone wanted. If we move beyond all the fancy window dressing, we see that Fukuyama is describing the final stage not of collective human development, but of historical war and domination—of empire. In “The End of History?” he writes:
The spectacular abundance of advanced liberal economies and the infinitely diverse consumer culture made possible by them seem to both foster and preserve liberalism in the political sphere. I want to avoid the materialist determinism that says that liberal economics inevitably produces liberal politics, because I believe that both economics and politics presuppose an autonomous prior state of consciousness that makes them possible. But that state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history if it is underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy.
With a sort of Clintonian optimism, Fukuyama regularly touts the fulfillment people will find in the neoliberal order at the “end of history.” From “spectacular [material] abundance” to self-validation and equal representation, the marriage of market capitalism and Western liberal democracy will provide, plugging the deepest holes of want in our bodies and our souls. At the same time, Fukuyama is essentially describing the mechanical workings of a life-governing apparatus that will whistle and froth and steam on whether your wants are met or not.
The “end of history” didn’t mean the end of military conflicts. It did mean, however, that the marriage of market capitalism and liberal democracy would enjoy eternal dominance.
One could argue that the greatest support for Fukuyama’s argument is the fact that, even if the globalized marriage of market capitalism and liberal democracy does not constitute an ideal social order in regard to humanity’s collective fulfillment, prosperity, peace, or happiness, it still seems to mark the decisive end to our development by way of outright domination. This is the subtext to the innocuous-sounding, jargony point that the particular “state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history.” Translation: the neoliberal order will “stabilize” its own dominance by continually incentivizing, rewarding, and securing the dominance of those who believe that it truly is the culmination of human development. Their faith in the “end of history” is validated by the enduring fact of neoliberalism—the world itself stands as a monument to their historical vision.
For the rest of us, neoliberalism has embedded itself so thoroughly in the organization of human life around the globe that any of our quixotic attempts to challenge its dominance will be overwhelmed, neutralized, extinguished, or absorbed. In other words, we are not necessarily born again and remade by the world order at the “end of history” to be any more convinced that this is how things were supposed to be, that this is where history was always supposed to end up. Rather, in our daily subjugation to the dominant world order, we are materially and soulfully incentivized to believe that, as the deathly adage goes, “there is no alternative.”
At base, then, it is clear that Fukuyama is describing a world- historical scenario in which one people’s history has permanently dominated that of all others—the end of history by fiat. Again, ours is not the first imperial age to declare itself the ultimate inheritor of the mantle of history itself. And the history we have inherited is littered with the bones of empires that inevitably crumbled, receded, and were usurped by some challenger. In the absence of a totalizing system of global control, the territorial empires of old were always susceptible to threats from beyond their own borders, always vulnerable to rot and revolt from within. What allegedly distinguishes our time from others, though, is the fact that the violent spread of market capitalism has “territorialized” nations and states around the globe, brought them into the collective fold, to the point that there is no “outside” anymore—no external threats to be vulnerable to. Thus, with every state on the planet being made functionally dependent on the global circuits of capitalism, every point of disruption from within will be swarmed and brought to heel under the sheer heft of the whole.
The “end of history” wants us to believe that this is how things were supposed to be—that there is no alternative.
Whether or not we want history to keep moving toward something else, something better than this, the suffocating reach of market capitalism and the legion of liberal democratic outposts and extranational bodies that secure its dominance around the world leaves us wondering: Where could history possibly go from here? And where would the forces that move history even come from?
• • •
Fukuyama’s take on the “end of history,” to be fair, has been questioned for decades. And for a number of reasons: from its Eurocentrism to its unshakeable faith in the world-historical stability of a neoliberal apparatus securing and enforcing the global marriage of “free trade” and Western liberal democracy. The past decade alone would seem to pose as great a challenge as we have seen to the Fukuyaman conceit. From the 2008 global financial crash to the rise of authoritarian-minded, far- right, Trump-style “populism,” the neoliberal order has shown quite a lack of, well, stability.
The very same empire that is supposed to lord over this end of history, forever and ever amen, can no longer seem to keep its story straight. Even as Donald Trump lauds himself as the very best president ever—an end-of-history sentiment if ever there was one—his presidency is nonetheless anchored to the message that the United States must be made great again. Something has slipped; the end of history has gone too far, and we must try to go back, it seems—to Reaganism, to the cradle of the Greatest Generation, to the Confederacy, to Jacksonianism, and on and on.
It is no coincidence that, in response to the historical recidivism of the Trump-led right, all that the amassed forces of the Resistance™ have been able to muster is a Fukuyaman defense that, in many ways, mirrors that of their opponents. From Hillary Clinton’s proclamation that “America never stopped being great” to the milquetoast Democratic obsession with being on the “right side of history,” the essence of the great political slap-fight of our day seems to amount to a debate between Democrats and Republicans over when, exactly—not if—history ended, which parts of our society are still stuck “in history,” and what they need to do to catch up. Either way, the presumption is that, regardless of what happens over the next two to six years, the great historical edifice of neoliberal rule will hold.
Trump’s message that the United States must be made great again is a challenge to the Fukuyaman conceit.
This is why the Democratic and Never-Trump Republican resistance has been largely incapable of challenging Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency on any grounds that would directly implicate the neoliberal apparatus of which they, too, are a part. Instead, the horror and hysteria unleashed by the ascendancy of Trump has been couched in pearl-clutching fear over what “norms” and “traditions” the MAGA movement has destroyed and expunged from our social world. If the neoliberal world order remains the embodied truth of the “end of history,” then, for all its concerned showmanship, the neoliberal establishment has yet to demonstrate any widespread belief that history, as such, is at stake.
Perhaps this outlook is a testament to the enduring acceptance that, as the cold dust from the collapse of the Soviet Union settled, as the sun shone on the supposed “end of history,” all sense of historical urgency—all sense that history is a vulnerable, perishable thing that must be fought for—hardened into concrete. In the popular mind, history became a settled matter, a taken-for-granted fixture in the background of the new millennium. Gone were the days of Marxist dialectics, Trotskyite permanent revolution, Spenglerian life cycles, the rise and fall of civilizations charted by Arnold J. Toynbee. At last history had stabilized on the model of Western liberal democracy; everything thereafter, including the Trumpian takeover of government, has been a matter of content, not form.
And yet, every day, all around us, the very meaning of history is eroding and dissipating. On the barren shores at the end of history, even the victors wander like historical amnesiacs. From within the worldwide windowless enclosure of the neoliberal order, the circuits of historical memory are frying, history itself has begun to break apart, and the end of the end may be in sight.
• • •
The Democratic resistance is incapabale of challenging Trump’s presidency on any grounds that would directly implicate the neoliberal apparatus of which they, too, are a part.
History is only ever as good as its means of enforcement. From our perch at the “end of history,” how we remember the past, and the role it plays in justifying the shape of the present, has been routinely secured and enforced by the fact of global neoliberal domination itself. The continuance of this domination is supposed to serve as proof that history has always been leading to this point and has nowhere to go from here. This vision of history, of course, has also been buttressed by a largely unchallenged arrangement of officialized cultural institutions, disciplinary practices, standards of expertise, and sanctified narratives of national progress, all of which have served to reproduce and reinforce notions of a settled history whose archive could always be expanded with new knowledge but whose regime of truth could never be upended.
But what good is this historical vision in a world where history as such has been unmoored and set adrift in the fickle, boiling rapids of the perpetual present? What security does history provide for the neoliberal status quo when the apparatuses of memory—from those officialized cultural institutions and practices to our own internal capacity for long-term historical consciousness—are the subject and the instrument of twenty-first-century political warfare?
As we are dragged further down the cragged gullet of the new millennium, we are experiencing more and more what it means to live and politick in a world in which the stilled machine of history has rusted under the monstrous weight of the permanent now. After all, these are the very circumstances in which Trump-style politics has thrived, moving seamlessly in the taken-for-grantedness of a land- and mind- scape that is increasingly dominated by digital technologies, and that has made history itself (and historical memory) more malleable than ever before. The reactionary Trump style, that is, has proven far more adept at navigating a political world that has adjusted to the fact that we are suspended in a hypermediated connection to an eternal present, in a permanent state of anxious distraction, bombarded by the new, the spectacular, and the self-affirming.
Moving within the slippery circuitry of such a world, Trump himself has become immune to the sting of his own history. He never pauses long enough to let history crush him; he and his administration just keep piling on more controversies, gaffs, lies, and atrocities. And, for our part, as we are forced to always be playing catch up, as we struggle to keep our heads above water in the flooded present, we become increasingly susceptible to forgetting what just passed, let alone holding anyone accountable for it.
Trump himself has become immune to the sting of his own history. He never pauses long enough to let history crush him; he simply piles on more controversies.
It is no coincidence that the Trump-led right has harnessed this history-resistant style of politics to launch an all-out assault on history as we know it. From Trump’s never-ending lies and attacks on the media to the GOP’s ramped-up war on academia, from white supremacist rallies defending Confederate monuments to conservative pundits discounting the role of slavery in the Civil War, there is, indeed, a war going on over the terrain of remembrance and over the mechanisms for enforcing history. Whether one considers the best-selling historical revisionism of Dinesh D’Souza, the weaponized falsehoods broadcast on Fox News, the power of erasure and censorship held by the titans of Big Tech, or ideologically warped narratives approved for K–12 history books, the fact that traces of these and other noxious forces are being sucked up and reproduced at the level of policy in the country’s highest offices is a clear sign that the battle for history is still on.
And yet many of us, especially those in the ranks of the so-called resistance, routinely confront this reality with a cavalier, Fukuyaman confidence that this, too, shall pass, that “sanity” will eventually be “restored,” and that history will stand stalwart witness, attesting to future generations that we were on the “right side.” But can we honestly, and with certainty, say that history—as we know it, and as we are capable of knowing it—will still be there? Can we rest assured that the end of history will sustain itself, even if history cannot?
We are now fighting on terrains where the old rules of historical warfare no longer apply. In the hypermediated reality of an endless political now, the meaning of history is determined and enforced not by the myriad monuments reminding us of our past, but by those who employ enough blunt force to occupy our attention in the present. What this will mean for the “end of history” is by no means clear. For history, though, only the old truth holds: you’ve got to fight for it.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
March 25, 2019
13 Min read time