Ms Wallin asked “How the hell does the idea of the end of history work??? It's come up a few times now and it seems to be a very random idea. How can history end??!?!” – this brief note is an attempt to answer that question.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” – R.E.M.
I should start by asserting that I am not a Hegelian. While I have read some Hegel, his work is not really my strong suit and my understanding of his thought is tainted by Feuerbach and Marx. The answer that I attempt here is flawed, and I welcome any constructive comments.
For the philosophers of the German Enlightenment, history equates with progress. We are not really discussing history in the sense of history books, but a broader scope along the lines of the sum total of human action. For Hegel this process is driven by the logic of dialectic – a thesis emerges, its antithesis emerges and they ‘clash’ to produce their synthesis. Hence history can be viewed as a series of theses, antitheses, and syntheses. Hegel is interested in the Master/Slave dialectic, whereby masters and slaves struggle against each other towards a state where both are free from the chains of their opposition (both master and slave are co-dependent and thus cannot be free while their opponent remains). History as progress will end when a fully rational (Enlightened) community emerges, because in this society master and slave will cease to be, and the power struggles that are the engine of history and progress will no longer take place.
Marx takes up the idea of the dialectical process of history. Marx argues – in the early writings, and the thoughts influence all that comes after – that history has been a series of periods defined by a binary opposition between the ‘propertied’ and ‘working’ classes (the feudal lord versus the serf, the capitalist bourgeoisie versus the proletarian). For Marx, capitalism is a synthesis whose antithesis – communism – will cause a conflict (the proletarian revolution) that will eventually result in the end of history (a state that Marx never quite got around to providing a description of…).
It was thinking along these lines that led Francis Fukuyama to pre-emptively declare in 1989 that history had ended. His reasoning went that the failure of the USSR meant that liberal democracy, as it exists in the West amounts to the rational state that Hegel predicted, since it has triumphed over Marxism. While we had not entered the final end state, Fukuyama thought that we were close enough to claim that ‘progress’ was over and forward movement would only be incremental, not monumental.
How does the end of history hypothesis work? Well, if history is progress, and progress is governed by a dialectical logic, there must be a point where no further progress can be made and the end of history is the moment that the final synthesis emerges. This is not to say that nothing will happen after this point – life and so forth will continue, it is just that there will be no developments.
The major problem with the idea, as I see it, is that the dialectical engine will never stop driving, and that there will always be sufficient struggle to keep history progressing.