Source: J.B. Shurk
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay in 1989 entitled, “The End of History?” in which he argued that the world had reached “…the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Published months before the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union’s communist Iron Curtain, the article became an instant classic, something that academics and media pundits referenced ad nauseam while grappling with the rapidly changing world in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The West had (seemingly and somewhat unexpectedly) won the Cold War, and Fukuyama’s timely essay provided an easily digestible roadmap for understanding the earth-shattering geopolitics of those years as something preordained (rather than as having been ignited by President Reagan’s “We win, they lose” strategy of checkmating the “Evil Empire” into obsolescence). Fukuyama’s argument (expanded in his subsequent book published a few years later) is grounded in a Marxist-Hegelian understanding of human history as essentially linear in nature, and for this reason, I have always found it to be intellectual rubbish that nonetheless benefited enormously from the transformational current events remaking the world at the time, giving it the appearance of being downright prescient. Still, as academics are judged by how frequently their works are cited by other academics, perhaps no scholar has ever achieved so much success with a single question.
It is true, too, that the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense lapped up this “ascent of the West” nonsense by blindly assuming that the trappings of Cold War victory would endure forever. We’ve spent twenty years at war in the Middle East under the delusion that we could bring the “blessings of democracy” to a region dominated by patriarchal tribes, religious zealots, and brutal dictators. During that same period, we’ve welcomed communist China into the World Trade Organization — despite its long history of human rights abuses, industrial espionage, and economic warfare — because “End of History” buffs believed a form of market capitalism spearheaded by a commitment to globalism and international institutions would eventually reshape China into something the West could control. And rather vexingly for those who insist human civilization advances in a straight line (how else can one constantly obsess over being on “the right side of history,” after all?), the Cold War solution dissolving the Soviet Union and precipitating the Russian Federation in its place failed to convince the former communists that the West’s vaunted “rules-based international order” exclusively owned the future as advertised. Why do Russia, Iran, China, the OPEC oil cartel, and the BRICS economic union refuse to do what the West wants? Haven’t they all heard that history ended over thirty years ago? How embarrassing (for us).
Of course, the far bigger embarrassment for the West is not that History lives but rather that Liberalism has died. In thirty years time, the West has squandered its role as a Cold War champion for freedom and embraced too many of the same petit tyrannies once used to control the minds and movements of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Executive mandates have replaced legislation and due process. Censorship grows at the expense of free speech. Collectivism has smothered free will. In an era when Western governments surveil their citizens’ communications and financial transactions with few restraints and regularly engage in forms of domestic propaganda, disinformation, and counterintelligence intended to “shape” the thoughts and preferences of their populations, it becomes more difficult by the day not to conclude that it is Western liberalism, not totalitarianism, that the twentieth century ultimately vanquished.
From the West’s Age of Enlightenment, we inherited a civilization inherently suspicious of government power and dedicated to the enshrinement of individual rights, universal equality before the law, and the notion that representative government can only retain continued legitimacy through the voluntary consent of those governed. Such traditions not only put Western nations on an unrivaled path toward innovation and affluence but also freed more humans from the shackles of poverty, ignorance, and servitude than at any other time in human history. Yet instead of protecting these immense human achievements from institutional corrosion by bequeathing from one generation of Westerners to the next an abiding commitment to their preservation, Western nations have turned their backs on liberalism’s robust and efficient engine for human progress in what can only be eulogized as a type of civilizational suicide effected from the poisons of apathy, hubris, self-contempt, and general frailty.
With classical liberalism dead, Western governments have propped up its corpse so as to rule in its likeness while betraying its most sacred foundations. In this way, postmodernism’s new generation of anti-liberal communists preach freedom while demonizing personal sovereignty, demand “social justice” while undermining personal rights, wield unchecked power cloaked in “good intentions,” and pretend to act “on behalf of the people” without ever seeking their consent. They suffocate equality while breathing life into grievance, promote the omnipotence of bureaucracy over the virtues of self-government, and abuse the rule of law as little more than a political weapon. Universal liberalism has been replaced with universal deceit whereby the language of liberalism is alive and well but the meaning of liberalism has been turned upside down and inside out.
In a free society, the answer to ideological disagreement is never censorship, yet censorship of opposing viewpoints is exactly what fake liberals (but real tyrants) such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton demand. In a free society, people are not fired from jobs or banned from sports competitions because of their nationality, yet the West has wasted no time punishing Russian musicians, athletes, and academics for the actions of a Russian government over which they have no control (while hypocritically refraining from punishing Chinese and Iranian nationals whose governments engage in staggering human rights abuses largely ignored). In a free society, symbols are not a threat to people confident in their principles, yet today even letters of the alphabet have become too controversial for some Western governments afraid that Russian propaganda is simply too alluring for free-thinking citizens. When imposing strict ideological conformity is the only way for Western governments to “win the hearts and minds” of their populations, then they are well on their way to having already lost those hearts and minds for good.
Where are we now thirty years after the “End of History”? Far from having refashioned the globe in the image of Western liberalism, the West has remade itself in the image of the same despotic systems it once fought tooth and nail. Concerns for national security, control over information, and digital surveillance have made mincemeat of free speech, diversity of thought, and privacy. If liberalism is dead or dying, though, there’s good news. Human history, in stark contrast to the imaginings of Marxist academics, has never been linear. It moves in cycles, fits and starts, meandering somewhat chaotically for decades before exploding forth in new directions. Yet one constant stands out century after century: whenever freedom’s light seems dim, humanity’s enduring love for liberty brings freedom’s flame roaring back to life. Far from liberalism’s end, we are on the road as witnesses to its beginning yet again.