Maybe History Ended After All: Reconsidering Fukuyama

“I heard it’s terrible,” said a young man in a Polo shirt and abbreviated Lacoste swimming trunks at a barbecue a couple weeks ago. He had noticed that I was holding the latest book by the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. He had the deep tan and apathetic drawl of a top-tier lobbyist’s son; I had been told he recently quit a job at a right-wing think tank.

“‘Terrible?’ Seriously?” I flipped through a few pages to display my copious notes in the margins. “I mean, it’s not exactly a page-turner.” But “terrible”?

Maybe, I thought, the kid was mixing up his public intellectuals; perhaps he was confusing Mr. Fukuyama for the liberally coiffed Japanese nuclear physicist who had been so ubiquitous on the cable-news circuit in the weeks after the nuclear accident. In any case, I failed to inquire as to the origin of the withering assessment, and promptly forgot all about the exchange–until an editor asked what I was working on. Hadn’t he too heard similarly wretched things about the latest from Mr. Fukuyama? The conservative critic he’d assigned to review it had declared it “unreviewable”–whatever that meant.

I emailed a bona fide conservative pundit I know. Would three make a trend? He told me to call.

“Here’s the dirt on Fukuyama,” he said in a familiar conspiratorial tone, and dispensed with a halfhearted nugget about how Mr. Fukuyama had mentored a controversial Iranian lobbyist.

Bad word of mouth has dogged Mr. Fukuyama since “The End of History?,” the 1989 essay he expanded into an ambitious book of political theory a few years later. There he cribbed some hacked Hegelian theories on the nature of “history” from the French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve to illuminate the intellectual and cultural climate of a future free of the ideological battles that dominated the 20th century. (No one remembers details, though; he might as well go down in history as the guy who said history had ended 20 years ago.) Humans over the past few centuries had become accustomed to “history” denoting a linear trajectory, a forward-looking progression toward some more optimal condition, he observed; but whither the world that had more or less reached a consensus on the superiority of liberal democracy above all other systems?

Mr. Fukuyama’s outlook was fairly bleak. Man would turn inward, preoccupy himself with bourgeois pursuits like mountain climbing and accumulating possessions; the civilized world would inevitably be overrun by what Nietzsche termed “men without chests.” What had separated man from beast, enabling history to progress in the first place, was his capacity for abstraction. The penchant for abstractions that enabled all mankind’s technological innovations had also instilled in him a sense of purpose, a desire for the “recognition” of his peers so strong that many millions of men over the ages had proven themselves willing to die a violent death on behalf of what they perceived to be a nobler, transcendent good. With no more Soviets to fight, and no more noble ideological struggles to die for, man was in danger of losing this essential aspect, which had propelled human history (thymos was its name; though Mr. Fukuyama’s old thesis adviser at Harvard, Harvey Mansfield, has since simply dubbed it “manliness”), and devolving into a species resembling the rational, profit-maximizing Homo economicus of the worldview shared by Adam Smith and Alan Greenspan. Mr. Fukuyama saw evidence of this regression in the “earnest young people trooping off to law and business school who anxiously fill out their résumés in hopes of maintaining the lifestyles to which they believe themselves entitled” for whom “the liberal project of filling one’s life with material acquisitions and safe, sanctioned ambitions appears to have worked all too well.”

Indeed, by the time I read The End of History for the first time as a college freshman in 1996, the whole idea had been reduced to a cheap punch line. No one in my international relations seminar had much of an appetite for abstraction. Investment banks only cared about the grades you got in econ. Most of my fellow students wrote papers about the worldview espoused in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, wherein the Harvard political scientist (a former mentor of Mr. Fukuyama) prophesied an epic showdown between the West and Big Islam. I don’t remember what I chose, but since it was quickly becoming clear my destiny was not on Wall Street, I dropped out not long afterward and moved back in with my parents in Virginia, which is how I came to experience a second coming of The End of History. Mr. Fukuyama was teaching graduate classes at George Mason University at the time; the cost was all of $430.

I was vaguely aware that Mr. Fukuyama identified himself as a “neoconservative,” but I didn’t understand the significance of the moniker–whatever it meant in 1999 paled next to the significance the label would take on in the years ahead–but among the things I have since learned about this peculiar academic tribe is that they are renowned for teaching classes with an infectious vigor that sometimes verges on religious conversion. Mr. Fukuyama had been trained by two of the movement’s foremost cult figures, Allan Bloom and Mr. Mansfield. I was overwhelmed and ill-informed and ripe for indoctrination, which is what I later half-suspected transpired that semester. I’d been spared any embarrassing phase as an evangelical Christian, Deadhead or Objectivist; my friends refused to believe Mr. End of History had not taken the opportunity to feed me a few poisonous ideas.