Sunday, June 5, 2011

End of History: A Gloss

A review of Francis Fukuyama’s latest (The Origin of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution) and, coincidentally, a review of The Future of History by John Lukacs, both in the July 2011 issue of The American Conservative, set off a train of thought on the “end of history”: the thematic and title of Fukuyama’s best-known work.

The moment history ended, I immediately stopped reading books about history. Of course. Paradoxically, therefore, I didn’t actually read Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). To tell the truth I wasn’t even tempted. Fukuyama’s conclusion was that we had reached the end of “ideological evolution.” We’d finally reached the pinnacle. The infinite future hereafter would ever and always take the same perfect form achieved when the Cold War ended: western-style liberal democracy. It would rule and rule and rule…forever after. That being Fukuyama’s conclusion, it did not seem worth the bother to learn how he reached it.

But in thinking about the subject in the 1990s, and recently again, it occurred to me that a certain poetic truth attaches to Fukuyama’s verdict if we modify it just a little. From time to time and always when successive waves of civilization reach a certain level of “maturity” a point comes after which the energy of the culture has been spent and, all through its dreary decay, nothing really meaningful happens except slow-motion shatter. And in that sense history temporarily ends. The same old same old starts repeating if with increasingly unpleasant features.

Here I would propose that for the Graeco-Roman civilization the end of history came with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, 49 BC. The dreary succession of caesars after that is essentially a featureless chaos. This state continued until finally a grown-up appeared again, Diocletian. He carved the Empire into four pieces round about 293—and with that history began again with the emergence of Christendom soon after.

The end of history for us? That we’re now living in such a featureless age is fairly evident to me, anyway. Should we date it from the end of World War II—Eisenhower our first Caesar? —and, by the way, a much more attractive Caesar in every way than Julius? The assassination of Kennedy? The end of the Cold War? Did George H.W. Bush actually proclaim it when he, quite intuitively, spoke of a New World Order? In the spirit of Fukuyama’s future eternal dispensation, I leave the solution to public opinion. Let an appropriate referendum be held and the end of history determined by two-thirds majority.

2 comments:

  1. What we do not learn from history is the fact that it is a long, drawn out matter of chaotic complexity, and little resembles the snapshots of focused actions that the works of historians convey to us.

    What we should learn from history is to be aware and on our toes all the time, because the river of time always flows, and if we keep looking for paradigmatic moments - such as the fall of the USSR, say, and the elevation of the USA into the sole superpower - we tend to miss the really important stuff:
    stuff like Ironic Reversals or Dynamic Mimesis... when we see the USSR fall, some of us worried about when the "other shoe" would drop...

    ... and drop it did. We could put the date 2008 on it, the year of living dangerously for the finance system. It would be an arbitrary date. The dates are not important. The flow of history is, and in this instance, the continuing flow of the Inequity of Wealth of Nations.

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  2. You're right, of course, Montag. History is more of an artform than a science -- and best pursued in a literary frame of reference. Some historians capture the mystery better than others, and those who'd mechanize it usually do poorly or can be critized more easily than those who see it as an active sort of mythography.

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