By Joe Cheung

Aug 30, 2021

Parts II and III are coming soon.

  1. Overview
  2. 20th Century Pessimism
  3. The Weakness of Strong States
    1. The Right
    2. The Left
  4. The Global Liberal Revolution
  5. Capitalism With Democratic Characteristics
  6. Endnotes


Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History? was published mere months before the fall of the Berlin Wall to explain the then-much-debated democratic peace theory: the almost trivial observation that Western liberal democracy was spreading rapidly, and that liberal democracies normally don’t go to war with each other.

Fukuyama argued that at the End of History, when events will still occur, but there will no longer be any credible alternative to Western liberal democracy after it outcompetes all rival ideologies:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Many before Fukuyama have championed their own ideology as the end of history: Thomas More satirised Utopia; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels produced the Communist Manifesto; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel posited the liberal state in Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Western liberal democracy won by outcompeting hereditary monarchy with the French Revolution in 1799, fascism with the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, and finally communism with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. You can revert from liberal democracy but you cannot progress beyond it to a better alternative system.

The title of Fukuyama’s essay has a question mark, but his claim was no doubt a bold one, and as a result excited an extraordinary amount of commentary and controversy, so Fukuyama restated his thesis in The End of History and the Last Man, which is as dense as it is daunting. The lack of a question mark in the title is apt as he makes his case with remarkable rigor – it is a tour de force drawing extensively from virtually every country’s political history, and more importantly the entire canon of political thought from Plato’s Republic to Hobbes’ Leviathan; the “End of History” comes from Kojève’s reading of Hegelian dialectics, and the “Last Man”, of course, from Nietzsche.

Fukuyama’s thesis of Western liberal democracy with market economy as the political-evolutionary end-state made complete sense to me. Part I of this review will cover the empirical case, part II the metaphysical case, and part III I will argue that the course of history has only proven Fukuyama to be right still. Also, you cannot really understand his subsequent two-book series of The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay (both of which I will review soon) without reading it in the context of The End of History and the Last Man, so I encourage you to read the book even if you have read his essay.

20th Century Pessimism

Fukuyama begins by contrasting the deep historical pessimism of the 20th century with the optimism of the 19th century:

The ‘Spirit of 1776’, or the ideals of the French Revolution, would vanquish the world’s tyrants, autocrats, and superstitious priests. Blind obedience to authority would be replaced by rational self-government, in which all men, free and equal, would have to obey no masters but themselves. In light of the broad movement of civilization, even bloody wars like those of Napoleon could be interpreted by philosophers as socially progressive in their results, because they fostered the spread of republican government.

In the 20th century, war was no longer socially progressive; war was cruel. Technological progress made possible weapons of unprecedented destruction, leading modern politics to create a state of unprecedented power, thus the coining of totalitarianism. For the first time in history, tyrants like Hitler and Stalin could employ both modern technology and modern political organization in the service of evil as ambitious as eliminating entire classes of people.

In response to the new kind of “total war” that involves the mass destruction of civilian population and economic resources, liberal democracies adopted strategies like the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima that would be called genocidal in earlier ages. Fukuyama describes the intellectual crisis as profoundly pessimistic:

The soberest and most thoughtful minds of this century have seen no reason to think that the world is moving toward what we in the West consider decent and humane political institutions—that is, liberal democracy. Our deepest thinkers have concluded that there is no such thing as History—that is, a meaningful order to the broad sweep of human events. Our own experience has taught us, seemingly, that the future is more likely than not to contain new and unimagined evils, from fanatical dictatorships and bloody genocides to the banalization of life through modern consumerism, and that unprecedented disasters await us from nuclear winter to global warming.

Most 19th century Europeans thought historical progress was towards democracy, but there is no consensus for the 20th century. It is only possible to speak of historical progress if you know where mankind is heading. It’s hard to imagine now but virtually everyone in politics across the spectrum and foreign policy believed in the permanence of communism, hence its worldwide collapse in the late 1980s was almost totally unanticipated.

The Weakness of Strong States

Fukuyama shows that authoritarian dictatorships of all kinds have been collapsing Left and Right, in some cases leading to liberal democracies, in others instability or yet another form of dictatorship. Liberal democratic states are by definition weak: preservation of a sphere of individual rights means a sharp delimitation of its power. Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, use the power of the state to regain at the level of national purpose what was lost in the realm of individual liberty. In any case, authoritarians have been undergoing a severe crisis of legitimacy in virtually every part of the globe. Specifically, a crisis of legitimacy within elites whose cohesion is essential for the regime to act effectively (as it is clear that a regime can be hated by large parts of the population yet manage to stay in power e.g. Latin American military juntas or oligarchies); even the Gestapo has to be loyal to Hitler to intimidate the larger population.

The Right

In the 20th century, the most important attempt at establishing authoritarian legitimacy was fascist ultranationalism, such as the right of “master races’’ like the Germans to rule other people. The assertion of racial or national superiority is actively proven with victorious war. This inherent militarism inevitable leads facist states into conflict with other states, which is self-destructive as seen in the sound defeat of Nazi Germany. Even if Hitler had emerged victorious, German nationhood could no longer be asserted through war and conquest. As facism suffers from this internal contradiction, Fukuyama argues that it has not been a serious ideological competitor to liberal democracy since Hitler shot himself in the face.

Every military dictatorship on the Right since has failed to formulate a coherent doctrine, as Hitler did, that could justify perpetual rule, and are instead only conveservative (preserving traditional social order) in nature. While many of the old authoritarians were frequent victims of their own incompetence (neither General Pinochet in Chile nor the Sandinistas in Nicaragua expected to lose the elections to which they submitted themselves), all of the generals and colonels represent traditional social groups that were becoming increasingly marginal in Portugal1, Spain2, Greece3, Argentina4, Peru<5, Brazil6, Uruguay7, and South Africa8. Regardless of their initial justification for legitimacy (most often “counterinsurgency”, “counterterrorism”, or even “preparing for democracy”), crises of legitimacy were inevitable as the generals knew only how to wage wars, not fixing economic and social crises. Fukuyama writes:

While recognizing the real differences that exist between these cases, there was a remarkable consistency in the democratic transitions in Southern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa. Apart from Somoza in Nicaragua, there was not one single instance in which the old regime was forced from power through violent upheaval or revolution.What permitted regime change was the voluntary decision on the part of at least certain members of the old regime to give up power in favor of a democratically elected government. While this willing retreat from power was always provoked by some immediate crisis, it was ultimately made possible by a growing belief that democracy was the only legitimate source of authority in the modern world.

So much for the conventional wisdom that nobody gives up power voluntarily.

The Left

Totalitarianism is very different from the traditional authoritarianism of the 19th century; the former seeks to destroy civil society in its entirety for “total” control over the lives of its citizens by providing an explicit, systematic ideology; the latter only seeks to control civil society and at most half-heartedly attempt to change popular values and attitudes. From the moment the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the Soviet state systematically attacked all potential competing sources of authority in Russian society, including opposition political parties, the press, trade unions, private enterprises, and the Church.

The totalitarian state was thought not only capable of perpetuating itself indefinitely, but also replicating globally. When communism was exported to East Germany, Cuba, Vietnam, or Ethiopia, it came complete with a vanguard party, centralised ministries, a police apparatus, and an ideology to govern all aspects of life. These institutions appeared to be effective, regardless of the national or cultural traditions of the countries.

But communism began to crumble unexpectedly. The year 1989 — the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and the ratification of the US Constitution — marked the decisive collapse of communism:

  • In the early 1980s, the Chinese communist leaders began to de-collectivised agriculture and reintroduced capitalist markets by permitting peasants (80% of China’s population) to grow and sell their own food.
  • By 1989, Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet leadership could be attacked openly in the press.
  • In 1990 and 1991, large demonstrations occurred across the Soviet Union calling for Gorbachev’s resignation.
  • In 1989, the ‘89 Democracy Movement in China was violently suppressed in the Tiananmen Square Massacre on 4th June, but not before the student demonstrators were able to publicly call into question the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party.
  • In February 1989, the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, the first of a series of withdrawals.
  • In early 1989, reformers in the Hungarian Socialist Workers party announced plans for free, multi-party elections the following year.
  • In 1989, a round table agreement led to a power-sharing agreement between the Polish Workers party and the Solidarity trade union, thus a Solidarity government came to power in July.
  • In July and August 1989, thousands of East Germans began fleeing into West Germany, leading to a crisis that rapidly led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German state, which then triggered the fall of communist governments in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
  • By early 1991, all formerly communist states in Eastern Europe held reasonably free, multiparty elections. Communists were initially turned out of office everywhere except in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania, while in Bulgaria, the elected Communist government was soon forced to step down. The political basis for the Warsaw Pact disappeared, and Soviet forces began to withdraw from Eastern Europe.
  • In January 1990, Article Six of the Soviet Constitution, guaranteeing the Communist party a “leading role,” was revoked.
  • In March 1990, the parliaments in the Baltic states declared their complete independence from the Soviet Union.
  • In June 1990, Boris Yeltsin was elected as president of the Russian Republic, who with many of his supporters in the Russian Parliament subsequently left the Communist party. This same group then began advocating the restoration of private property and markets.
  • In August 1991, a coup against Gorbachev by a group of communist hardliners collapsed, partly because of the plotters’ incompetence and lack of resolve, but also because of a remarkable outpouring of support for democratic institutions led by Boris Yeltsin.

The Global Liberal Revolution

As mankind approaches the end of the millennium, the twin crises of authoritarianism and socialist central planning have left only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity – liberal democracy.

Liberalism can be defined simply as a rule of law that recognizes civil rights, religious rights, and political rights (including freedom of press) from government control, per Lord Bryce’s classic work on democracy. Democracy, while distinct from liberalism, can be thought of as yet another liberal right – indeed the most important one – held universally by all citizens to have a share of political power. The formal, rather than the substantive, definition is the most useful: a country is democratic if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through periodic, secret-ballot, multi-party elections, on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage.

Fukuyama draws from Kojève who thought democracies no longer had any remaining fundamental “contradictions”; self-satisfied and self-sustaining, they had no further great political goals to struggle for and could preoccupy themselves with economic activity alone.

While there have been cycles in the worldwide fortunes of democracy, there has also been a pronounced secular trend in a democratic direction, which has persisted since Fukuyama published his thesis:

The number of democracies increased greatly after WWI, decreased during the 1930s when many of the young democracies reverted to being autocratic, increased again after WWII, and increased dramatically after the fall of the Iron Curtain circa 1989.

Hockey-stick increase in the population living in democracies but not for those in autocracies, of whom four-in-five are Chinese.

Capitalism With Democratic Characteristics

The persistence of global democratisation implies a secular Mechanism, begging the question: if the logic of advanced industrialisation, determined by modern natural science, creates a strong predisposition in favor of capitalism and market economics, does it also produce free government and democratic participation?

Fukuyama observes the link from modernisation to democratisation. For instance, Japan was the first East Asian state to modernise, and also happened to be the first to achieve a stable liberal democracy, which was accomplished at the point of a gun, so to speak, but has proved durable long past the point where democracy could be said to have been imposed coercively. Taiwan and South Korea, with now the second- and third-highest levels of education (many of the degrees of the ruling members earned in the US), have transitioned most drastically from authoritarian third-world backwaters into democratic first-world high-tech industrial powerhouses.

It is interesting to see how well Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works fits with Fukuyama’s model. Towards the end of my review of Studwell’s book, I noted that the East Asian economic miracle involved not just a lot of capitalism, but also a ton of state intervention that seemed only possible under autocratic rule: Japan under the technocratic dictatorship of MITI; South Korea under General Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship; Taiwan under the longest imposition of martial law by the Kuomintang; and China of course under the increasingly authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

Fukuyama argues that dictatorship could in principle be much more functional in bringing about a modern society in the Philippines. However, as readers of this blog knows, the Philippines is Studwell’s favourite whipping boy for a reason – a dictator is useless when he is Ferdinand Marcos, who instead of spending the borrowed money on export-oriented industrial capacity, bought so many votes that the Philippine economy collapsed under the weight of unserviceable debt and shrank 20%.

As leaders like Deng Xiaoping were painfully aware, the legitimacy of such autocratic countries rely solely on nigh-miraculous economic growth; when it falters, the ruling class have no choice but to transition to the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty.

The Mechanism is, in other words, a kind of Marxist interpretation of history that leads to a completely non-Marxist conclusion. Fukuyama writes:

It is the desire of “man the species-being” to produce and consume that leads him to leave the countryside for the city, to work in large factories or large bureaucracies rather than on the land, to sell his labor to the highest bidder instead of working in the occupation of his ancestors, to acquire an education and to submit to the discipline of the clock.

And contrary to Marx, the kind of society that permits people to produce and consume the largest quantity of products on the most equal basis is not a communist one, but a capitalist society:

The Marxist realm of freedom is, in effect, the four-hour working day: that is, a society so productive that man’s labor in the morning can satisfy all of his natural needs and those of his family and fellows, leaving him the afternoon and evening to be a hunter, or a poet, or a critic. In a way, real-world communist societies like the Soviet Union or the former German Democratic Republic achieved this realm of freedom, since few people put in more than four hours of honest work a day. But the remainder of their time was seldom spent writing poems or criticism, since this could promptly land them in jail; it was spent waiting on line, drinking, or scheming for the opportunity to take a vacation in a crowded sanitarium on a polluted beach.

Hence, Fukuyama argues that a solely economic account of history gets us to the gates of the Promised Land of liberal democracy, but does not quite deliver us to the other side. The first major democratic revolutions in the US and France, both took place just as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way in England; the American Founding Fathers may have been angered over the attempts of the British Crown to tax them without representation in Parliament, but their decision to declare independence and fight Britain in order to establish a new democratic order can hardly be explained as a matter of economic efficiency.

Spherical cows may work for theoretical physics, but humans simply aren’t purely rational utility maximisers. Fukuyama writes that most of us have a “thoroughly bourgeois” blindspot by reducing all motivations to economic causes:

A Universal History based on the progressive unfolding of modern natural science can, moreover, make sense only of the past four hundred or so years of human history, dating from the discovery of the scientific method in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet neither the scientific method nor the liberation of human desire that drove subsequent efforts to conquer nature and bend it to human purposes sprang ex nihilo from the pens of Descartes or Bacon. A fuller Universal History, even one that based itself in large measure on modern natural science, would have to understand the pre-modern origins of science, and of the desire that lay behind the desire of Economic Man.

As such, Fukuyama draws on Hegel to explain struggle for recognition as the primary motor of human history. Having made the empirical case that the secular trend of democratisation is real, Fukuyama proceeds to spend the bulk of the book making his case for why democracy has triumphed over all other ideologies on a metaphysical level, to which we will turn in part II of this review.


  1. The Caetano dictatorship in Portugal collapsed in 1974, and transitioned to democracy after a period of instability when Mario Soares’ moderate Socialist party won a plurality of votes in 1976. The proximate cause was Portugal’s deepening and unwinnable colonial war in Africa that consumed a quarter of the nation’s budget. The Portuguese also aspired for the Western European consumer standard of living. 

  2. In 1975, after the death of General Francisco Franco in Spain, who was the last exponent of 19th century conservatism based on throne and altar (the same conservatism defeated in the French Revolution in 1789-99), the last Francoist Cortes (Spanish Courts) overwhelmingly passed a law in November 1976 that in effect constituted its own suicide by stipulating that the next Cortes be democratically elected. Indeed, the Spanish population calmly voted Suarez’s center-right party into office in June 1977. The Francoist lost legitimacy as the Catholic church as a whole had liberalised after Vatican II in the 1960s, and the Spanish church increasingly took on the role of human rights advocate and critic of the Francoist dictatorship, as reflected in the Opus Dei movement of Catholic lay technocrats who entered the administration after 1957 and had been intimately involved with the subsequent economic liberalisation. 

  3. The Greek peacefully transitioned to democracy in 1974 through inner divisions within the ranks of its military regime, as the colonels who came to power in 1967 only sought legitimation on grounds that they were preparing for a democracy, thus discrediting itself by supporting a Greek Cypriot bid for unity with the mainland, leading to to the occupation of Cyprus by Turkey and the possibility of a full-scale war. 

  4. The Argentine peacefully transitioned to democracy in 1983 as its military junta took power from President Isabella Perón in 1976 with the chief aim of ridding Argentina of terrorism, which was undercut after they succeeded in doing so in a brutal war. The military junta was then discredited when it decided to invade the Falklands/Malvinas, as it was provoking an unnecessary and unwinnable war. 

  5. The military government of General Francisco Morales Bermudez in Peru found it could not cope with a series of strikes and intractable social problems, so in 1980 the Peruvian military turned over power to a civilian government in the face of a rapidly deteriorating economic crisis. 

  6. The Brazilian military regime presided over a period of remarkable economic growth from 1968 to 1973, but in the face of a global oil crisis and economic stagnation, the last military president Joāo Figueiredo stepped down in shame as Brazil entered its contemporary epoch of Nova República

  7. The Uruguayan military initially took power to wage war against the Tupamaros insurgency in 1973-74, but lost the referendum on the new constitution they drafted in 1980. By 1983, the military had voluntarily stepped aside. 

  8. South African Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd and other architects of the apartheid system wanted to industrially develop South Africa using black labour while reversing and preventing the urbanisation of South Africa’s blacks on the premise of white supremacy, which was foolish as by 1981 almost 18 million blacks were arrested for the crime of wanting to live near where they worked, thus the apartheid sysyem lost its legitimacy among whites. Internal resistance became increasingly militant, and prompted brutal crackdowns. In 1990, prominent African National Congress (ANC) figures such as Nelson Mandela were released from prison. Apartheid legislation was repealed on 1991, and the ANC won a sweeping victory in South Africa’s first general election with universal suffrage in 1994

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