Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Short Response On The End Of History

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.


Dædalux said...

Interesting. I'm no philosopher, and not exactly well read. The only flaw I can see in your reasoning is a typographical one: In the fifth paragraph you refer to capitalism as a synthesis - I think you mean thesis, as communism is its antithesis.

The thing is (as I see it) communism just failed. Did it really affect change in capitalism to such an extent that we can say we have a 'new' capitalism - a true synthesis from the conflict?

Obviously one can aruge the modern democracy is Hegelian conflict in action, and therefore given the present system 'history' never ends. But maybe this is exactly what Francis Fukuyama meant by the 'end ' as the conflict is now an internal part of a presumably final/stable system.

In the end I don't see how we can ever answer such a question. During the cold-war it was easy to point out the ongoing conflict, but even in the absense of an obvious conflict how can you ever be sure you're at the end? Maybe it's just a lull in the action - or a rut like the dark ages.

Personally I find the idea that this is 'as good as it gets' a little depressing. I see such a declaration of the 'end' a sort of philosophical laziness. Shouldn't we always be aspiring for something better? Isn't the inevitable result of an end to progress a decline?

Dædalux said...

I'd also point out that the world is not exactly without ideological conflicts at the moment. The fall of communism didn't exactly provide the peace and lasting stability we all hoped it would. I think it'd be reasonable to argue that Fukuyama falsely assumed communism was our last hurdle to overcome. There really are a few kinks left to work out.

Pete said...

Ok guys, time to get your hands off Hegel. His theories are way too complex to be summarized in a few paragraphs and personally I think that anyone who hasn't seriously engaged in an intensive study of Hegel's ideas (by seriously I mean for at least 15 or 20 yrs) shouldn't be assuming that they even come close to having a clue as what he was on aboot.
Possibly a good way to move forward on this argument would be to have a look at what Fukuyama actually said....and also to get clear on exactly what is meant by the idea of 'dialectic' (it's not a f**kin "engine" Martin!!!). A good starting point for reading aboot dialectic is via an academic named Scott Meikle. Some of his works help to clarify these ideas for us English speakers quite well.
Finally, and this is probably something that needs it's own post, in regards to daedalux's comments.....Communism didn't exaclty fall dude. There is this little place called China that you moght have heard of? Seriously though a question that is worth consideration is this: Did the Soviet block countries actually manage to establish the type of society that Marx was talking aboot? or was the USSR a gross misinterpretation that never even came close?