‘What we may be witnessing is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ So wrote Francis Fukuyama in his seminal 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’. ‘With the fall of the Soviet Union’, Fukuyama continued, ‘The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’
Fukuyama did not suggest that the end of history meant the end of wars or conflicts, but rather that capitalism and Western-style liberal democracy were the culmination of human political development and would not, and could not, be transcended. Over time, he insisted, all states would adopt a form of capitalist liberal democracy. It was an argument contested from almost the moment he finished writing his essay. The rise of Islamism, the unleashing of ethnic conflicts, the challenge posed by China – a myriad developments, his critics suggested, questioned the presumption of an end of history.
But nothing, perhaps, has torn at the heart of Fukuyama’s argument more than the tumultuous events of 2016. From the Brexit referendum result in Britain to Donald Trump’s Presidential victory to the seemingly unstoppable rise of populist forces throughout Europe, the events of the past year have shown that in the very countries that were models for Fukuyama’s ‘final form of human government’, large swathes of the electorate are questioning that form. The link between capitalism, democracy and liberalism, which formed the bedrock of Fukuyama’s thesis, is itself being questioned.
In ‘The End of History?’ Fukuyama grasped important truths about the post-Cold War world. What he failed to grasp was the importance of politics and the significance of collective ideals. ‘Economic calculation’ and ‘the endless solving of technical problems’ have not, and cannot, replace ‘the struggle for recognition’ or ‘the ideological struggle’.
In the quarter of a century since Fukuyama wrote his essay, politics, particularly in the West, has indeed shifted away from ‘ideological struggle’ towards ‘the endless solving of technical problems’. The broad ideological divides that characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have been eroded. Politics has become less about competing visions of the kinds of society people want than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system, a question more of technocratic management rather than of social transformation. As a result of these changes there has opened up a new political faultline; not, as in the past, between left and right, but one between those who are at home in, or at least willing to accommodate to, this globalized post-ideological, world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. In the past, such disaffection could find a political outlet through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. It is the erosion of such mechanisms that is leading to the remaking of political landscape.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, few believed in an alternative to capitalism. Communist parties crumbled, while social democratic parties remade themselves, cutting ties to their traditional working class constituencies while reorienting themselves as technocratic parties. Trade unions weakened and social justice campaigns eroded.
The left, no longer rooted in old-style class politics, responded to the new political terrain in one of two ways. The first was to look to bureaucratic or managerial means of creating a more progressive society, in a sense to grasp the Fukuyama argument that ideological struggle and idealism would have to be ‘replaced by economic calculation [and] the endless solving of technical problems’.
Many on the left had always looked to the state as the key means of enforcing social change. As social movements and political organizations eroded, this became an even more significant strategy. It was not just the national state, but transnational organizations, from the EU to the International Criminal Court, that became important to the left as vehicles for social change. Transnationalism gave managerial politics a progressive sheen.
The second response to the challenge posed by the demise of class politics was to embrace ‘identity politics’. The roots of identity politics are long and reactionary. They stretch back to the counter-Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century and its hostility to Enlightenment universalist values. Such critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities – nationalism and racism in particular.
In the decades after the Second World War, however, it was radicals who embraced the politics of identity. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable. The old politics of identity faded, but a new form emerged – identity politics as a weapon wielded not in the name of racism and nationalism, but to confront racism and oppression, and as a means of challenging inequality. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing ideas both of black identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. It provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, identities, goals and ideals.
In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression and was linked to the project of social transformation. But as the possibilities of social transformation faded, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself. ‘The very language of commonality’, American cultural critic Todd Gittlin observes, ‘came to be perceived… as an ideology to rationalise white dominance.’
As the left has transformed itself through mangerialism and the politics of identity, many sections of the working class have found themselves politically voiceless at the very time their lives have become more precarious, as jobs have declined, public services savaged, austerity imposed, and inequality risen. Far from helping create new mechanisms through which the working class could challenge economic marginalization and political voicelessness, many liberals, and many on the left, have come to see the working class as part of the problem. They were too uneducated and bigoted, part of the old world now being left behind. In the wake of the Brexit vote and of the election of Trump, rather than addressing the discontent these votes expressed, many raged instead against the racists and the idiots who knew no better than to vote the wrong way.
Having lost their traditional means through which to vent disaffection, and finding themselves despised by liberals and the left, many working class voters have themselves turned to the language of identity politics. The causes of the marginalization of working class communities are largely economic and political. But many have come to see that marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so they, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent. But not the identity politics of the left. It is the identity politics of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia, the identity politics that provides the fuel for many populist movements, to which many have been drawn. Rightwing populists have refashioned the original reactionary politics of identity for a new age.
The right, almost as much as the left, has been reshaped by the end of the Cold War, adopting forms that mirror those of the left. There has been the emergence, on the one hand, of a managerial, technocratic, form of conservatism as exemplified by Angela Merkel, and, on the other, of a politics of identity rooted in nationalism and hostility to immigration. From Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, leaders of such movements link a reactionary politics of identity to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. Feeling abandoned by the left, many traditional working class voters have abandoned the ideals of the left, looking instead to populist politics as a means of regaining a voice.
It is tempting to view the rise of populist anti-immigration movements as a purely Western phenomenon, the product of racism and xenophobia in Europe and America. Yet if we raise our eyes to look beyond Europe and America, we can see a similar process across the globe. In many African, Asian and South American countries, too, the old order is under pressure from populist forces. Here, the ‘old order’ is not represented, as in Europe and America, by the parties of right and left that shaped the postwar consensus. It is represented, rather, by the organizations that led struggles for freedom from colonialism, such as the Congress Party in India or the ANC in South Africa, or by the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, for instance Kemalism in Turkey or Nasserism in Egypt. These organizations and ideologies have become senile or corrupted.
Just as in Europe and America, people have become disaffected with the old order. And just as in Europe and America, many of the opposition movements that give voice to that disaffection are shaped not by progressive ideals but by sectarian politics, and rooted in religious or ethnic identity. The Islamist AKP in Turkey or the Hindu nationalist BJP in India are the equivalents of the Front National in France or the alt right in America.
What we are witnessing globally is a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it. It is this dual crisis that is unstitching politics. To return to Francis Fukuyama’s vision, the current tumult is the result of struggles for recognition that remain unshaped by progressive movements, of ideological struggles in a post-ideological world.
2016 might have been tumultuous. But with Donald Trump formally entering the White House, Britain (probably) triggering Article 50 to leave the EU, elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy, all of which could see rightwing populists gain ground, or even triumph, a referendum in Venezuela, growing opposition to the new austerity package in Brazil, and the continuing catastrophe of civil war in Syria, 2017 is likely to be even more so. The challenge of addressing the dual crisis of the elite and of opposition movements, and in particular of recreating a left that is in thrall neither to managerialism nor to the politics of identity, will become even sharper. What we need is to re-establish a politics of solidarity not rooted in the politics of identity, whether of the right or the left, to establish new social mechanisms through which to link liberal ideas about individual rights and freedom, including freedom of movement, with progressive economic arguments and a belief in the community and the collective. That I will try to address in another post. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and best wishes for 2017.