Was 2016 the End of History?

Drawing on a tradition that goes back to Hegel via Marx and through Alexandre Kojève in the 20th century, Francis Fukuyama is famous for his assertion that we are approaching the end of history – that human progress and civilization end with the spread of liberal democracy and market economics across the globe.  With the end of history also comes the end of conflict: we are living in a much more peaceful world than our grandparents' generation and the generations that preceded them.

While the case can plausibly be made that there is less death and human conflict than in the past, the end of history theory seems entirely hubristic; universalist; and, in a way, messianic.  To suppose that the history of humanity will end one way or another is a vain attempt at prophesying.  Time and time again, those who advance the end of history theory always end up flat on their faces.  Hegel first proposed the theory when he saw Napoleon's conquests across Europe, and with the French general came the ideas of the French Revolution, and it seemed as though the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity would hold sway over Europe.

Karl Marx was also a proponent of the end of history, believing that human government would result in a cataclysmic revolt on the part of the proletariat and the establishment of a communist, egalitarian paradise.  But as history has come to show, the experiment in communism has ended, with only death and misery to show for it.

And the end of the Cold War brought on the new wave of end of history theorists.  Led by Francis Fukuyama, this new wave promises that liberal democracy and market economics have triumphed over the forces of old world aristocracy and totalitarianism. And with this new sense that liberal democracy is the be-all-end-all of human government, there is a sense that we must foster its growth around the world.  Often this has meant imposing liberal democracy by force, as demonstrated by our wars in Iraq and Libya.  There is an American universalist belief that liberal democracy is good for all peoples at all times.  There seems to be no acknowledgment of historical context.

I do not mean to criticize liberal democracy.  As far as I can see, it is the form of government that has delivered enormous prosperity to millions of people.  It is the greatest safeguard of human rights and has shown the most respect for the dignity of the individual.  But it is also important to recognize that liberal democracy is a fragile thing, and it often rests upon illiberal foundations.

This brings me to 2016 and the lessons we can learn from such a tumultuous year.  The year brought a near political revolution throughout the Western world, from Brexit to the rise and election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, and the potential unraveling of global institutions such as the European Union and NATO.  Europe and North America (and the world itself) have been rocked.  What sort of lessons can we learn?  How are we to interpret the meaning of this shift?

One lesson is that liberal democracy rests on illiberal foundations, or, to put it another way, pre-liberal conditions must be maintained for liberal democracy to work.  There must be certain assumptions agreed upon by a people before a liberal democracy is to be formed.  Common traditions, religion, language, and civic principles provide the foundations on which classical liberalism can thrive.  In the absence of such commonalities, trust between people frays, and the only thing that can hold together a fractured society is an ever more powerful state.  Nations have a culture, and that geographic proximity does not create solidarity among different peoples and cultures.  People have desires, both spiritual and cultural, that cosmopolitan globalism simply does not meet.  An agreed upon moral framework cannot exist within a "multicultural" society; and in the absence of cultural institutions and traditions, the only thing that will hold a society together is the force of the state.

The "end of history" is a foolhardy theory.  Human history has a funny way of throwing curveballs and making things unpredictable.  It is true that we live in a time of unprecedented peace, that we have less internal strife and crime and fewer wars among nations.  But we cannot take this for granted.  History shows that major conflicts usually create periods of long-lasting peace, but this peace never lasts.  The Thirty Years War, regarding the population lost, is still the bloodiest war ever fought.  Once the war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, peace reigned in Europe, relatively speaking, until the start of the Seven Years War a century later.  The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna brought peace to Europe for a century until the start of the First World War, which was then followed shortly after by the Second.  Since the end of that conflict, we have been in a state of mostly global tranquility.  But if the pattern of history continues, it seems that peace cannot last forever.

If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that democratic institutions must be vigilantly protected.  They should never be assumed to be impervious to outside forces and should never be taken for granted.

Tim Colvin is a political science/classical civilization double major with a minor in philosophy at Fordham University.  He is from Kings Park on Long Island.

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