An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture.

Twenty years later, I consider Fukuyama something of a tragic joke. His antiquated views came about a century or two too late. His philosophy is derived from Hegel, who was just as laughable for declaring 1806 to be the end of history as Fukuyama was for declaring 1989 to be the end. Fukuyama still finds Hegelianism laudable, whereas I join Kierkegaard in regarding it as a peculiar thought-experiment. It was only 10 years after Fukuyama’s proclamations that we started to see the first signs of trouble on the horizon. I think the 1999 Seattle riots are more significant in retrospect than they were while happening. They were one of the initial warnings to Western bourgeois society that all was not right in the heartland. Of course, distrust of Fukuyama’s “Western Idea” was quite entrenched elsewhere on the globe, a fact violently manifested 2 years later in New York City. The rest of the decade has made us painfully aware that democracy & capitalism are not inextricably bound together; they are Abel & Cain, the latter clubbing the other when things don’t go as desired.

The 2000s rebutted Fukuyama in ways the 1990s didn’t or couldn’t. South America is shifting to the Left, not Right; Africa, often overrun with consumer goods, is often distinctly lacking truly democratic governments; China, too, has continued Deng Xiaopeng’s tendency to welcome economic reforms while shunning political reforms. All across the Middle East we find large swaths of people approving of intellectual extremists like Sayyid Qutb and violent activists like Osama bin Laden. The so-called triumph of capitalism has not wrought more peace, and has dangerously flirted with facism — which was supposed to be a dead ideology here at the end of history. In the West, an “infinitely diverse consumer culture” has not served to “foster and preserve liberalism in the political sphere.” Contra Fukuyama, the “class issue” has not been “successfully resolved” and our post-industrial societies are very far from being “fundamentally egalitarian.”

I think the failures of Fukuyama and his ilk result from  many factors. Here I want to just note two problems with “end of history” thinking.

1. It’s a failure of perspective. It’s a failure to recognize the contingency of our circumstances and our beliefs. Capitalism is a major development in the history of ideas, but it is still a relatively new phenomenon. Our political & economic arrangements are not infallible, necessary outworkings of a larger Idea. These arrangements came into history at a particular time and place, and may just as easily exit history at any time. When I read Fukuyama I am struck by his inability to consider the long-run, to consider that capitalism may someday be marginalized in the same way communism currently is. As the modernist he is, Fukuyama can appeal to his metanarrative to legitimize present discourses, but he is fundamentally incapable of legitimizing his metanarrative itself. He absolutely incapable of demonstrating that why our present politics represent the highest form of human thought.

2. It’s a failure of imagination. I think about this a lot, because I consider “imagination” to be an extremely important yet frequently ignored subject in philosophy. The rock-bottom reality here is that Fukuyama cannot imagine life otherwise. He cannot grasp the very real notion that society may be radically re-constituted in the future. Millenia from now, our descendants may have as little understanding of life under laissez-faire capitalism as we do of life as a hunter-gatherer in pre-agricultural society. It takes a very over-sized & odd ego to presume that we have even remotely scratched the surface of what is possible on this planet. There is a distinct possibility that we only “know” 0.0005% of what mankind will know at the true end of history.

This lack of imagination is painful to watch in contemporary politics. I see too many people hellbent on defending destructive philosophies because they simply cannot imagine any other way of doing things. They end up justifying any number of horrors wrought by American’s capitalist empire by simply saying, “At least it’s better than ____.” Is it not possible that there’s another way? The anarchists are fond of putting it like this: “Another world is possible!” We need not put up with injustice simply because we don’t yet see a way out. I believe it was Leo Tolstoy who likened it to a man in pitch-black who only has a candle or flashlight: incapable of seeing where he ultimately wants to walk to, he decides to just not walk at all. Instead, we ought to take what little light we have and proceed step-by-step to where we need to be.

Too many people cling to their little illuminated circle and refuse to press onward. Because they do not yet know how to balance ecological sustainability with economic sustainability, they continue to pillage the earth even when doing so is patently absurd. Because they do not yet know how to balance the rights of the many with the rights of the few, they continue to oppress the few with demonic laws & policies that uphold wage slavery and perpetuate systemic injustice. They continue to defend the status quo at any cost because taking steps forward can be troubling and beset by uncertainties.

I personally do not know the ideal way to organize societies, or economies, or communities. I do not have grand schemes for ensuring liberty & justice for all. But together we have to start with our imaginations, prophetically decrying what is abhorrent and holding out hope that we can collectively conceive of better ways to do things. Contra Fukuyama, the backward-thinking dinosaurs of a bygone era are not the indigenous people around the world resisting the machinery of military-backed corporatism, but the people who, like Fukuyama, stubbornly insist that our present woes, our present cycle of boom-and-bust, our widespread & myriad injustices, our warmongering & imperialist ambitions — that these represent the best we can do, we who supposedly live 20 years after history ended.

5 thoughts on “An Idiotarian Without Imagination

  1. I didn’t know that, but it’s pretty funny. There’s no shortage of nemeses to go around. If I were of a different age I have think my arch-rivals would be Nixon & Kissinger.

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