What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war 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.
Politics and economics, in this view, are now settled issues, except in the more backward regions of the world, and conflicts in such remote places needn’t concern us, so long as we can isolate them behind a kind of cordon sanitaire, through which we are able to extract such raw materials and human talent as are needed for our own more advanced civilization. Eventually, of course, we’ll get around to extending that civilization to them as well, once we’ve finished tidying up closer to home.
Admittedly, not all formulations of the end of history are as arrogant as I’m making them out to be here, but the idea that the major problems left in the Twenty-first Century are problems, not of politics, but of management, is common to all of them. In my view, this is not only a profoundly anti-democratic idea, (I’d even go so far as to call it un-American, if I were speaking only theoretically) but it’s also just plain wrong. What it leads to — has led to, in fact — is not a managerial state which selflessly wields the key to the greatest good for the greatest number, but a corporate state, which isn’t the same thing at all.
To see the difficulty, one need only consider that a state which manages things must also of necessity manage people, and that to do so without politics, it must resort within its own borders to demagoguery and propaganda at the very least, while outside them, when it can’t persuade other states to see the world as it does, it must resort to force. To believe otherwise, one must ignore not only much of what has been known for centuries about human nature, but also much of what is already happening in our not-so-shiny new century.
To be fair, Fukuyama doesn’t actually speak of replacing politics with management; he asserts instead that Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government. I would argue that as far as the United States is concerned, this is a distinction without very much difference, in that our version of Western liberal democracy has, since the end of World War II, evolved into something which is notably neither liberal nor democratic.
What isn’t liberal about it? Here’s a partial, but telling list:
1. The chronic and systematic underfunding of public education. The government has withdrawn funding for the public school system while creating a tax structure which favors the creation of privately-run academies, in many cases religious or ideological in nature, to compete with it.
2. The abandonment of any pretense of support for independent public institutions. The Federal Reserve Bank has become a captive of what, in more candid times, we rightly called the moneyed interests. The balance sheets of banks, however chimerical, are guaranteed, and the effect of those largely unconditional guarantees — a shortage of capital available to the real economy of small business enterprises and wage earners — is ignored. The reports of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are censored by appointed political commissars. So are the programming choices of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the funding choices of the National Endowment for the Arts.
3. An economic war on our wage-earning classes. For almost eighty years after the need for it became apparent, the government has steadfastly refused to create a publicly funded health insurance system with mandated universal coverage. At the same time, it has ignored evidence that employer-provided health insurance covers progressively fewer people, has gradually restricted the treatments it will pay for, and in its latest form, has an execrable cost-benefit ratio. Unforeseen medical expenses are now one of the most significant causes of bankruptcy in America. The response of the government has been to change tort law to limit the liability of defendants in malpractice cases, and bankruptcy law to favor creditors.
The government is actively hostile to labor unions. It has outsourced thousands of civil service jobs to private non-unionized corporations, and assisted in the destruction of unions from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization to the United Auto Workers. It has also refused to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act or to pass the Employees’ Free Choice Act. In its zeal to deny workers their rights, the government has made it far more difficult than it should be to organize new unions, or to defend the contracts of those which already exist.
4. Abdication of the government’s regulatory responsibilities. Federal and state agencies charged under existing law with the oversight and regulation of banking, environmental protection, food and drug safety, military procurement, and communications — to name but a few — are routinely placed in the charge of former executives and lobbyists from the industries which they are mandated by law to oversee. The results have been predictable, from the collapse of the housing market, to the e-coli in our hamburger, to superfund sites which haven’t been, and never will be cleaned up, to the billions of shrink-wrapped dollars gone unaccountably missing in Iraq.
As with the liberalism of our American version of Western liberal democracy, so also with its democracy:
1. Gerrymandering. This is no longer merely a dark art; in recent years, it’s become a remarkably well-funded and rigorous science. Its only function is to protect incumbency, and when circumstances are such that one party can gain a clear advantage for itself — as, for example, in Texas in 2002 — it can be devastating to the opposition. Even when circumstances don’t favor one party, both are happy to collude in creating districts which make it difficult for any non-aligned candidate to successfully challenge an incumbent of either party. Couple this with the systematic and deliberate undercounting of minorities and the poor by the decennial census, and we’re faced with a political reality in which any significant change in the status quo is difficult to imagine without a full-blown revolution.
2. Offenses against free speech and the right of assembly. When the American media refers to the events in Tienanmen Square in 1989, a ritual reverence for the rights of free speech, assembly and petition is always in evidence. When it
reports on is told about the use of informers, agents provocateurs, intrusive surveillance, preventive detention, and the intimidation of accredited reporters at an an American political convention, it remains largely silent. Likewise with the transformation of the idea of free speech into a series of cages for dissenters and protestors set up for the convenience of police at a distance from the object of the protest — such things are rarely mentioned, and then only to dismiss them as unavoidable necessities. All of this has become a commonplace of American politics in recent decades, even though it can be — and has been — argued that it represents a fundamental perversion of rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
3. Institutionalized disrespect for the rule of the law. An American President who employed the full powers of his office to conduct what was, for all intents and purposes, a secret war on an opposition political party, was allowed to resign from office when his crimes against democracy were revealed, but was immediately pardoned by his successor. An American Vice-President has openly boasted, on nationally-broadcast television programs, of ordering acts defined as war crimes by American laws and treaties, yet despite his brazen confession, there isn’t the slightest chance that he’ll ever be prosecuted for his crimes, even though he’s now out of office. When compared to the fact that the United States currently incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other Western liberal democracy, or many totalitarian states, for that matter — mostly for drug offenses, and mostly poor, or members of minority groups, or both — there’s ample reason, surely, to ask whether or not justice in our country is truly blind.
4. The militarization of law enforcement. Helicopters, combat uniforms, flak jackets, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, armored vehicles, training in counter-insurgency techniques by Blackwater Xe — even the police forces of modest-sized towns and the sheriff’s departments of depopulated rural counties lust after such toys, and many already have, or soon will have them, thanks to the generosity of their fearful neighbors and the rapacity of our ever more diversified defense industries, (While admittedly the Israelis, African dictators and nervous ex-Soviet satellites have more money to spend, capitalism wouldn’t be capitalism if it lost the knack of expanding its markets.) The new equipment and training will, of course, be accompanied by new responsibilities, prestigious and important ones, such as domestic anti-terrorism surveillance, and the enforcement of immigration laws.
No doubt it’s a new and more dangerous world which we inhabit, particularly as we live out the final days of our imperial pretensions, and our egregiously misnamed war on drugs, but surely it wouldn’t hurt if we were a little more careful about what we wished for. In my own town, population 10,000, the newer, beefier police force seems to be engaged mostly in pursuing and harassing teenagers and people who look like Mexicans, and in beating up black people who inadvertently find themselves on back roads after sundown. I’ve encountered any number of such incidents myself. Here’s just one example: eight fully-equipped police cruisers — eight of them — strung out along the shoulder of the road at a major intersection, with the sixteen cops who’d gotten out of them them surrounding what appeared to be a single middle-aged farm worker of Mexican descent in a 20 year-old station wagon with shot piston rings, and all of his personal belongings stuffed into the back. What genuine democracy considers scenes like this an unremarkable part of its everyday landscape?
When I consider a list of achievements as dubious as these, I’m afraid I see neither the end of history, nor the triumph of Western liberal democracy over any possible future politics. What I see instead is power attempting to disguise its appetites as rationality, which is precisely the maneuver which history most often records as the prelude to political chaos.
This is neither an accident, nor — as Fukuyama seems to believe — an unavoidable but temporary station on some uniquely Western via crucis. We’re all creatures of history, and as such capable of accumulating knowledge over the course of generations, yet despite our powers for good or ill, anything even remotely resembling omniscience remains beyond our reach. The impressive intellectual and physical resources now at our disposal are indisputable, yet we’re clearly every bit as vulnerable as our less capable ancestors were to events which we can’t foresee.
For us it doesn’t actually matter whether nemesis arrives as irreversible global warming, a world-wide pandemic or grain harvest collapse set in motion by unsafe economies of scale in agriculture, or even as the failure of the light of reason in our struggle to reconcile irreconcilable differences among the world’s major economic and political powers. What matters is that when nemesis does arrive, it’s unlikely that a managerial state which has already proven itself to be part uncontrollable dynamo and part house of cards will be able to fend it off.
I consider myself a faithful child of the American Constitution. Like many other Americans who share my faith, perhaps even Fukuyama himself — particularly since he’s come to see the moral and intellectual flaws in neoconservatism — I feel a certain native contempt for oligarchs and imperialists, for demagogues and fanatics. Much as I despise them, though, I don’t think that they deserve the blame — certainly not the exclusive blame — for the mess we’ve made of our heritage. Our problem isn’t a lack of virtue in our governing classes, it’s a failure to understand the role of scale in determining the viability of human institutions.
The population of the United States is now more than 304 million. In order to live the way we’ve become accustomed to living, we consume almost 21 million barrels of oil a day. The figures for natural gas and electricity consumption are similarly daunting. In this context, speaking of governance in terms of representative democracy requires more than an act of faith, it requires some knowledge of the dynamics of control systems.
When a society relies so absolutely on a technological infrastructure as large and as complex as that implied by the current energy consumption of the U.S., the legitimate question to be asked is whether it serves us, or we serve it. This isn’t a new question; Marx asked it, Sartre asked it, and so have many others who aren’t embedded philosophically in Fukuyama’s end of history. Frankly, the answers to date have not been reassuring.
It’s hard to understand, after all, how interminable wars in distant places benefit us, why universal health care is unnecessary, or what’s so unique about our modern age which makes civil liberties a luxury we can no longer afford. The real answer, the only answer, in my view, is that democracy has come to be seen as an inconvenient way to manage the large systems — economic, technological and political — which we’ve inherited from the industrial revolution. Since Word War II, this perception has in fact become the governing subtext of our politics, regardless of how scrupulously we avoid mentioning it either in public or in private.
Those charged with the responsibility for managing large, complex enterprises interest themselves primarily in how to accomplish their goals; questions of why they should have such goals are at best treated as diversions from the task at hand, and at worst as irresponsible — questions of interest only to fools who have no real responsibilities, and therefore have the time to waste on trivialities. This is understandable, but it’s also dangerous.
Consider just one example: once a national consensus is established that the key to continued prosperity lies in increasing our consumption of affordably priced fossil fuels, the mining of coal by mountain-top removal in the Appalachians may be looked upon as a welcome innovation. The expense of maintaining the largest mobile military force on the planet, however insupportable, may come to be considered a worthwhile investment, if it guarantees us access to oil which lies, for the most part, in remote and contentious parts of the world.
When, later on, evidence mounts that the negative consequences of this earlier consensus might outweigh the benefits — destruction of the Appalachian ecosystem, a possibly disastrous rise in the Earth’s average temperature, and a Global War On Terror which has revived colonialism and re-legitimized torture, among its other evils — we may find, to our dismay, that the original consensus has hardened into a military-industrial complex. We may also find an army of lobbyists with satchels full of cash camping out in the halls of Congress, none of whom have any interest in anything except defending what their masters have built.
Even worse, decades of media consolidation now allow the machinery of the status quo to employ all the techniques of mass manipulation pioneered by the advertising industry, and perfected by the unlamented totalitarian governments of the last century, to smother any meaningful discussion of reforms which might threaten its interests. Not all have been as crude as Glenn Beck’s assertion that believing in global warming is treason, but taken as a whole, they’ve been tragically effective.
The problem is that when representative democracy becomes a shadow play, and the supremacy of those who ask how over those who ask why is complete; as the conventional wisdom narrows, and the status quo advertises itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy, we’re all at risk from events which we may be able to see coming, but have lost the power to deflect.
I’m sorry, Professor Fukuyama, but what we have now in no way represents the end of history, unless by the end of history we mean Armageddon. It’s far too monumental, far too brittle, and far too fond of looking admiringly in the mirror at itself.
A true post-industrial politics, one which might be flexible enough to restructure even its most dominant, and most resistant institutions in the face of impending calamity, cannot rely on the benevolence or expertise of a managerial class, be it capitalist, socialist, or teetotalitarian. We must invent new technologies of decentralization, and rediscover the benefits we once understood to be exclusive to democracy — its openness to the contributions of all, and in the collective, its clear-eyed view of the world as it is, unencumbered by the baggage of either privilege or ideology.
If we don’t, we might not be facing the end of history, but what remains of it is unlikely to be as pleasant as you imagine.