My love of history can be traced to an act by a dedicated librarian. It was the result of my summer reading contest persistence in reading all the books in the children’s library section of the Carnegie Public Library in Laramie, Wyoming. When I ran out of books for my supposed elementary reading level, she marched me downstairs to the adult section and I discovered history and non-fiction in general. As a college student back in Laramie at the University of Wyoming, I took as many history classes as I was allowed. However, never in all these learning experiences did I encounter the phrase “the end of history.”
Recently, I encountered the phrase in an opinion piece for the New York Times. (Ross Douthat, December 9, 2022) The opinion writer was referencing the book and article by Francis Fukuyama, a noted historian who in a 1989 essay cited the fall of the Soviet Union as a marker for “the end of history.” He followed this with a book in 1992 on the same subject The End of History and the Last Man. I was busy being a mom to my five children in those years and was unfamiliar with the concept. Researching it I found the following definition on Wikipedia:
The end of history is a political and philosophical concept that supposes that a particular political, economic, or social system may develop that would constitute the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.…The end of history proposes a state in which human life continues indefinitely into the future without any further major changes in society, system of governance, or economics.
In his 1989 article, Fukuyama cited the first use of the concept was during the Napoleonic Wars. The philosopher Hegel wrote in 1806, the victory of the ideals of the French Revolution, and the imminent universalization of the state incorporation the principles of liberty and equality. The principles of liberal democratic state would be applied to the whole world meaning nothing else need be developed. Karl Marx took up Hegel’s suggestion and posited that humankind evolved socially in stages: “tribal, slave-owning, theocratic, and finally democratic-egalitarian societies.” (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 2). While Marxian politics did not lead to a liberal state as outlined by Hegel, it has been linked to Hegel’s writing ever since. In Europe, a French historian and philosopher used the end of WWII and the growth of liberal democracies leading to the establishment of the Common Market as the signs of the “End of History.” Alexander Kojève taught in Paris hoping to redeem Hegel’s legacy. He believed so strongly in “the End of History” that he resigned his teaching position and spent the rest of his life working as a bureaucrat in the European Economic Community. Fukuyama believes as Kojève did that the intellectual conflict of ideas and systems would be ended when the tensions between the communist system and the western liberal system were gone. He believed this had occurred when the Berlin wall fell, and the Soviet Union fell apart. This believe has been strongly challenged by both historians and world events. Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order (1996) was one of the first. The rise of fundamentalist Islam, neofascist nationalistic governments in Europe, and dictatorships in both Russia and South Asia as well as non-state sponsored terrorist groups demonstrate that Fukuyama was wrong.
As I researched this concept, I became more convinced of the sheer audacity of it. The end of history is an example of Eurocentric arrogance. To say that liberal democratic governance and a free market consumer-driven economy are the perfection of all human civilization is the height of arrogance. To posit that when all the world accepts it, there will be no more social development ignores a basic fact of the universe: the only constant is change.
As one coming close to my 80th decade, I have observed that nothing in the universe is static. As I wrote not long ago, the sand in the creek below my house was once rock. Eroded by the steady flow of water, aided by gravity, it was worn away and deposited in the bottom of the valley. The rock it was separated from was formed when other sand was deposited in a still layer, covered over with layers of dirt and other rock, pressured, heated perhaps, pressed into stone. It is a cycle we do not notice but should. We notice the cycle of plants from the tentative growths of spring to the buds of summer and the seeds of fall and the quiescence of winter. We sometimes refuse to notice the changes in our own bodies as we age but they are there. Nothing in the world is static. Nothing in the universe is static. From the electrons and particles that are the most basic substance that structures everything to the stars and galaxies, it is all moving and changing. To posit that if a certain series of events occurs, no disruptions or changes will ever again occur, is to deny the basic nature of existence. Change is the only constant.