Thursday, December 29, 2011

History Ends or Turns Again

Francis Fukuyama has moved on since his 1989 book, The End of History and the Last Man.  Most recently, he has finished the first volume of a massive study of the origins of political order.  Earlier this year, I heard Fukuyama give a somewhat disorganized presentation of the new work. I’ll have to read the book before I decide what I have to say about it, but I was intrigued by his suggestion that religious beliefs and institutions have been critical in driving political and social change.  But no matter how many hefty tomes he piles on our library shelves, he’ll probably always be known as The End of History Guy.
The 1989 book enjoyed three big advantages in the competition for public attention. First, it had an impressive and prophetic title. Second, it proclaimed the world was reaching a historical resolution just when Soviet Communism was collapsing. Third, it made grand assertions that begged for debate, creating a Fukuyama cottage industry for professors and political commentators. The industry continues even today, with John Arquilla offering one of its latest products in the journal, Foreign Policy.
Fukuyama did not argue that history would end because we would all sit down and stop doing things. To oversimplify his claim, “history” is not just one thing happening after another but the competition of social and political ideas and systems.  Drawing on Hegel, Fukuyama saw history as having a direction, and argued that the direction ran toward liberal democracy. History was ending because this end point was becoming clear.
In his cleverly titled, The (B)end of History, Arquilla argues that Fukuyama was wrong to say that political systems have reached a  resolution and that the events of 2011 demonstrate how he was wrong. Arquilla maintains that we may have reached the end of conflicts between ideologically based nation states, but that this represents a turning toward a new kind of historical action. The Arab Spring, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and even al Qaeda represent the bend in history toward “loose-knit, largely leaderless networks.”
I sympathize with the view that history (even history narrowly understood as competing political goals) doesn’t end so much as it shifts and changes. But I think Arquilla also might be making excessive world-historical claims for today’s headline news.  We do see a lot about networked social movements, but these are not entirely novel, in spite of their use of new social media technology.  I think about, say, the Grange movement among American farmers and the populism it created, and even about the pre-internet movements that ended the Soviet Union.  Since today’s networked movements are such a new turning, moreover, we don’t know which ones will end up being incorporated into more traditional political organizations, which ones will operate as external pressure groups, which ones will disappear entirely, and which ones will transmogrify into different movements.  If they are to be effective, movements must somehow be formalized. If the uprisings in Egypt are to produce a new kind of government, for example, then they must end in an elective parliament.  And that would be a traditional political form.
Ultimately, it seems to me just too early to say that loose networks have become the new direction in history. As Hegel observed, the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk.  Who can say when we’ve reached the end of a world-historical day?

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