Saturday, June 25, 2016

Relax, history is still ended

One of my little annoyances is the constant misrepresentation that Francis Fukuyama's 'End of History' theory receives. This has increased recently with Trump's candidacy, and another good example came this week from a semi-prominent leftist commentator, reacting to Brexit:

According to deBoer, massive populist resistance to the 'neoliberal consensus', further evidenced by Brexit, directly challenges Fukuyama's idea that modern liberal democracy is the inevitable 'final form' of human organization. Let me explain why I think that's wrong, and why Fukuyama's theory holds up pretty well.

What does Fukuyama actually say?

Much of the confusion about The End of History thesis is in thinking that practical politics and events stop occurring. This is obviously not the case. Fukuyama's theory is about how institutions interact with psychology, technology and ideology, and is more a work of political philosophy than predictive political science. It's logically stronger, and much less falsifiable than commonly understood.

In a nutshell, Fukuyama identifies modern liberal democracy--essentially the combination of market economics and professionalized democratic states--as uniquely stable in the long-run because of its ability to constantly and peacefully revitalize institutional systems that provide material and psychic goods. Markets channel the advancements of science and technology to create prosperity, while democracy mediates people's inherent desire to be recognized by their peers as holders of dignity.

Essentially, Fukuyama takes the Marxist analysis of Hegel and points it to a different institutional endpoint: instead of Full Communism, we get modern liberal democracy.

Source: Wikipedia
Plausible ideological alternatives must cross a very high bar and demonstrate sustainability in (and compatibility of) the dual realms of material and psychic well-being. Some, like communism, failed. Others, like anarcho-capitalism, have never really been tried. Current aspirants, like China's authoritarian technocracy or Islamic theocracy, are quite idiosyncratic and historically circumscribed, and seem highly unlikely to spread globally. Indeed, their greater adoption of market and political freedoms isn't so much a question of 'if' but 'when'.

The core challenges to the long-run dominance of modern liberal democracy are notably radical: environmental or biological catastrophes that upend the ability of professional and globally-integrated markets to provide material prosperity, or advanced technologies like transhumanism that qualitatively change the psychology of dignity and social interaction. Advanced weaponry or AI could once again restore military competitiveness as the central organizing principle of humans--who knows. The point is, given the current and foreseeable deep context of human civilization, modern liberal democracy is unchallenged and will continue its messy and incremental march towards greater adoption.

So, about that Brexit

On a purely empirical level, the British rejection of the EU is merely one data point among many, and even if one sees Brexit as a mark against Fukuyama's theory (questionable, as I'll explain), there are plenty of other countries lending their factual support. Developing countries around the world aggressively court global export markets and investment, and nearly all pay at least lip-service to democratic elections and publicly-accountable governing institutions. Many of the countries that have tried other paths--populist socialism in Latin America or Greece, fascism in North Korea--have seen terrible instability and material deprivation. From 30,000 feet up, the basic premise that global liberal democracy is on a long-run upward trajectory is strong.

The first big error that recent End of History skeptics on the left make is in equating neoliberal economic policy (free trade, immigration) with Fukuyama's holistic theory. They view the populist nationalism that fueled Brexit as evidence against Fukuyama's theory, but in fact the UKs trade and immigration debates were over lower-level margins within practical politics, distinct from the over-arching ideological consensus about modern liberal democracy.

Fukuyama doesn't specify an optimal amount of border openness, nor does he require such-and-such level of tariff reduction policies. Not every anti-market decision or event is evidence against Fukuyama's core theory; modern liberal democracy is more about the dynamic process of nonviolent revitalization than anything else, and the scope of what is economically 'liberal' encompasses wide variation in public policy. Israel, for example, has restrictive immigration policies yet a vibrant market-oriented economy. Similarly with Japan's trade protectionism in agriculture. Economic liberalism, like democracy, is ultimately a nebulous concept.

Francis Fukuyama, enjoying the end of history
Source: Instagram

 Schrödinger's Brexit

The second, related mistake in reading Brexit as a refutation of Fukuyama's theory is forgetting about the 'democracy' piece of 'modern liberal democracy'. A key element of modern liberal democracy is its dynamic fusion of both material well-being and (for lack of better words) cultural or spiritual concerns. Only modern liberal democracy can sustainably handle the tension that sometimes occurs between these dual priorities, and I see Brexit as beautifully illustrating this quality.

Fukuyama places the state as his core unit of institutional analysis, and in this sense Brexit can easily be understood as a democratic re-assertion of British (or English) agency, identity, and dignity in the face of a transnational technocracy. The 'economic-vs-recognition' trade-off apparently was too far out of whack for many citizens, and Brexit has gently brought the relationship back into alignment. Whatever one thinks about the values or motivations of racially-motivated Brexiters, it does seem to confirm the basic adaptability and resilience of modern liberal democratic states.

In a sense, the question over whether the EU and super-states generally are a logical or inevitable extension of The End of History thesis is tautological [or something like it]. Because modern liberal democracy is defined at the level of a state, if super-states work, they support the theory. If they fail by breaking apart into constituent states, however, it doesn't necessarily provide evidence against the theory. In both cases, modern liberal democratic states are still around doing their thing. Similarly, if the UK breaks apart and loses Scotland, it wouldn't really be a crushing defeat for Fukuyama, because these moves along the state 'size' and 'sovereignty scope' margins aren't truly jeopardizing the core institutions of market economy and democratic accountability (assuming the highlands don't devolve into dystopian battle-ravaged warlordism).

I think Brexit is an unfortunate practical and symbolic defeat for both the UK and those cheering for a cosmopolitan, forward-thinking future with free movement and ethnic harmony. A more globalized world with stronger transnational institutions is crucial to developing adequate defenses against catastrophic and existential risks like climate change, pandemic, asteroids, etc., and I hope Brexit will provide the feedback necessary to prompt effective reform. But even though Brexit represents an unfortunate backslide in some respects, modern liberal democracy seems as ascendant as ever.

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