End of History again

I have an article in this month’s Quadrant, The Rise of China is the Real End of History.

Fukayama’s famous 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, is often depicted as recognising the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the events surrounding it constituted an historical faultline and a triumph of liberal democracy and the free market.

Communism had failed to offer the standard of living it promised. Its leaders had even lost the confidence to apply draconian internal political repression, leaving space for a determined group of activists who valued liberty to attract mass support. From the 1960s, Communism also no longer appealed to ideologically committed supporters like the Cambridge Five, who were able to undermine their enemies from within, and industrial spies as instruments of technology transfer.

The Soviet leaders inherited an economy that had achieved major strides in modernisation and, rather like the Ottomans, maintained that success by copying the technological successes that were propelling the western style economies. In the case of the Sultans, the Ottoman Empire’s gradual decline lasted for centuries. The rapid advance of technology vastly telescoped this process in the 20th century and with it the period during which Communism could stand toe to toe with the west. For the Soviets, like the Ottomans, only at the death knell was there a serious examination about the reasons why a constant catch-up was necessary rather than leadership being generated internally.

The key message of the Fukayama thesis was not the failure of Communism, but the success of capitalism. Deng Xiaoping’s apostasy, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, signalled a major retreat from ideology. One cat was recognised as far more productive than the other. The outcome of this was a recreation of property rights and the rule of law concerning individual property which swiftly catapulted the Chinese economy into wealth. But this did not bring liberal democracy in China – and arguably not in Russia.

What it has demonstrated is a phenomena, seen in the 1930s right wing totalitarian states, that the benefits of liberal democracy over political monopolies need not include unlocking prosperity. The key to that prosperity is freedom to innovate, low taxation, secure property rights and so on.

The implications of this are that no longer will countries seize other countries’ resources. They, or their firms, can buy everything they want from willing sellers and such voluntary exchange has been central to achieving success. This respect for existing property rights means we have little reason to fear that the Chinese, if their march to world leadership is inevitable, will seek to project that leadership and use military means to impose unwanted economic outcomes.

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20 Responses to End of History again

  1. jtfsoon

    A rather optimistic assessment.

    I do agree that the Party has no interest in escalating military aggression when they can achieve better results through espionage and strategic economic aid (e.g. the the Pacific). I also think that overall for a more stable and less aggressive China the Party are possibly a lesser evil than unbridled democracy – there is as much representation of crazy nationalists and leftists among the pro-democracy forces as there is of the liberal market oriented types and this is something people seem to forget. Because the Party is so invested (literally in most cases) in the growing economy they have a stake in continuing market reforms and in defusing the more confrontational nationalist sentiments in the population (though they will also not hesitate to harness this when convenient).

    My bet is the next step in China’s evolution will be for it to become more like Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism (with better enforcement of rule of law at least in economic matters).

  2. Scott

    Communism and Socialism are so passé.
    Interventionism is now the order of the day.

    “It would be an error, of course, to believe that the guardianship of the authority over the individual could remain confined to the domain of health, that the authority would conceivably be satisfied to forbid or to limit the use of dangerous poisons like opium, morphine, possibly also alcohol and nicotine, but that otherwise the freedom of the individual would remain untouched. Once the principle is acknowledged that the consumption choices of the individual are to be supervised and restricted by the authority, how far this control will expand depends only on the authority and the public opinion which motivates it. It then becomes logically impossible to oppose tendencies which want to subject all activity of the individual to the care of the state. Why only protect the body from the harm caused by poisons or drugs? Why not also protect our minds and souls from dangerous doctrines and opinions imperiling our eternal salvation? Depriving the individual of the freedom of the choice of consumption logically leads to the abolition of all freedom.”

    Interventionism: An Economic Analysis (1940) Ludwig von Mises

  3. OzChampion

    “The implications of this are that no longer will countries seize other countries’ resources.” This opinion really surprises me, particularly when discussing China, given the current situation in the Spratley Islands between Philippines and a bellicose China.

  4. Peter Patton

    And China is gaily skipping through Africa seizing other countries’ resources for a song. Apparently, deep discounts are offered to those who only want to buy digging rights, but decline the human rights lecturing side-dish.

  5. Peter Patton

    Didn’t Fukayama mean just that history has ‘ended’ in the sense of ‘history’ as defined by Hegel – a dialectic of two opposing ideological systems, whose tension was always tending towards synthesis? Without Communism, ‘history’ as defined by that tension and synthesis was no more? To that extent I think he was on the knocker.

  6. Phil E Steyn

    “This respect for existing property rights means we have little reason to fear that the Chinese, if their march to world leadership is inevitable, will seek to project that leadership and use military means to impose unwanted economic outcomes”
    How does this fit with infrastructure “gifts” to underdeveloped countries with mineral resources? This generous aid develops not only the minerals but the infrastructure and the labour (Chinese) housed in purpose built towns.
    When needed, the “technical’ staff will morph into “security staff” and the it’ll be time for the “gift” ( read debt) tp be repaid. Not, mindyou before the local “big men” have their cut safely tucked away in investments overseas!

  7. Big Jim

    This is optimistic. It seems to me that in saying

    “we have little reason to fear that the Chinese, if their march to world leadership is inevitable, will seek to project that leadership and use military means to impose unwanted economic outcomes.”


    the author may be blind to one side of the dynamic. In many contests it is the conduct of the loser that keeps the peace.

    Who is being replaced as global leader, and how will the declining power(s) behave? Surely the Middle East becomes even more unstable without absolute American hegemony. It is easy to see the US overplaying a desperate, raggedy hand in due course.

  8. Token

    This generous aid develops not only the minerals but the infrastructure and the labour (Chinese) housed in purpose built towns.
    When needed, the “technical’ staff will morph into “security staff” and the it’ll be time for the “gift” ( read debt) tp be repaid. Not, mindyou before the local “big men” have their cut safely tucked away in investments overseas!

    In coming decades the people if the Third World are going to realise that US “imperialism” was the softest and least intrusive in world history.

    China looks like they are using the tactics they have used across the centuries to secure their base of critical resources and the old skool imperialist tactics you describe are already happening in Africa.

  9. dover_beach

    Didn’t Fukayama mean just that history has ‘ended’ in the sense of ‘history’ as defined by Hegel – a dialectic of two opposing ideological systems, whose tension was always tending towards synthesis? Without Communism, ‘history’ as defined by that tension and synthesis was no more? To that extent I think he was on the knocker.

    Yes, that is what he meant but he is only right if the tension was properly identified. This is where Fukuyama was wrong; the tension wasn’t and isn’t between socialism/ communism and liberalism but between enterprise association and civil association. And the latter tension is alive and well in contemporary politics.

  10. John Mc

    While all of this is true, I also think there is a tendency for the Chinese to wish to exert their influence on the region, and generally on the world stage, not only through ‘soft power’ but also through demonstrating they’re a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention the scuffles that are going to occur with India as they bump chests over who is the superior and most deserving ancient civilisation in the region.

  11. RodClarke

    effectively excercising “Soft Power” requires a reserve of Hard Power.

  12. Big Jim

    Perpetual world peace; with geo-politics reduced to quibbles in The Economist’s op-ed pages, with maybe the odd blue beret exercise thrown in; seems to me to be an axiom of the End of History proposition. I remain highly sceptical.

    Consider an Israel in a few short decades, neglected by an American regime of popularist persuasion, reaching out to Peking for unconditional support. (I jest, of course.) But imagine the ruckus in the US for such a state of things to even become conceivable.

    Imagine, as the great V.I. Lenin said, ‘it’s easy if you try…’

  13. Peter Patton

    Yes, that is what he meant but he is only right if the tension was properly identified.

    That is an excellent point, db.

  14. blogstrop

    Has Mr Fukyamama written further books, sequels to The End Of History? Oh, yes. Our Posthuman Future – the Greens will “warm” to that. Where The Right Went Wrong seems a bit cheeky, for someone who called time on history.

  15. Peter Patton

    blogstrop, I found The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstruction of Social Order quite stimulating.

  16. maurie

    A reassuring piece, except for a small item known as the South China Sea that keeps cropping up. However, whenever it does bubble over, the existence of Uncle Sam generally rocks me to sleep at night.

  17. Mk50 of Brisbane

    History is profoundly empirical. Fukuyama’s nonsensical drivel should really be read as either comedy or as a definition by which the only history he regarded as such was contest between ideologies.

    This definition of history would rather amuse Thucydides, I suspect.

    It’s arrant nonsense, as history includes flows of trade, movement of religions, ideas and concepts along those trade routes (that’s where the communications flows and systems are most dense), and above all the mutual interference of cultures.

    Alan’s comment above assumes that people and cultures are rational, and that economic behaviours define human behaviours and also those of nation-states and cultures (two very different beasts). This sort of thinking was commonplace between the end of the Depression of the 90s in 1896 and September 1914.

    There were books and many popular press articles, lectures and public seminars about how a major European war was now impossible due to the economic interdependence developed from 1820 onwards by the First Globalisation.

    See Corelli Barnett and the History of the Ministry of Munitions for just how interdependent that world was. it’s a level of interdependence we are only now starting to equal.

    And all of those articles were wrong, as their assumptions regarding economically driven rational behaviour were false. War was NOT impossible because European nations were financially and economically interdependent.

    Sorry, Alan, I reject your argument here. It was false last time, and it’s false now.

  18. blogstrop

    Yes, Peter, I’ve no doubt he’s a far more intelligent man and a far better writer than I’ll ever be, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a smart-arse dig.

  19. Alan moran

    Mk50
    I am not arguing the end of wars – it is very rare that with hindsight the belligerents would look back on a conflict and consider thee were net gains. Bad people will emerge in the future and miscalculations will happen as they always have.
    The point is that whereas previously wars were fought for land and plunder or to control resources there is little reason for that today. The more successful nations will be able to buy what they need. Nobody in an era of shrinking population needs lebensraum. NObody would conquer WA for its iron ore resources when they can buy them at market prices.

    Aggressors may still want to impose their ideology, though not now a socialist one, and this remains a real threat. That said the ideology imposes are not and not likely to be powerful nations

    This is a change, “an end of history”, at least as important as the end of (intra-Chistian) religious wars, or one that involved nations grabbing territory from their unwilling neighbours.

    The motivator for this change was less the failure of Communism and more the success of first the capitalist free market Asian Tigers then China and India. These showed a better way to enrichment.

  20. Cory Olsen

    My concern here is that declining powers (USA?) may overplay their hand and provoke military action (deliberately or accidently), and that a bellicose and rising China may respond with the threat of a military response, resulting in a confrontation not in the best interests of either party.

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