In the wake of the Trump election, one of the few bipartisan pastimes has been to point and wag a finger at Francis Fukuyama and the perceived thesis of his work The End of History. The thesis—or at least the way that thesis is represented—suggests that perhaps the 1990s and the brief period of American seemingly singlehanded hegemony had produced a liberal political order that would not, maybe could not, end.
For those who view the Trump election as a world-historical event, they can raise their hands and shout at this thesis (and Fukuyama, its somewhat unfairly strawmanned totem), “You idiot! Don’t you see how much is changing? Obviously nothing ever ended at all!”
For others, usually opponents of the “liberal order,” the End of History has become a sort of self-evident critique of liberalism itself. “Look at its hubris—it presumed it was the end of things.” These sometimes take a grim satisfaction from the whole Trump affair.
And for a final, smaller, group, the End of History has taken on a new meaning, even if they call it by a different name. While they may admit that history never ended, there is a sense that the social and political energies of the “West” are somehow exhausted, that we are in a phase of decadence and disillusionment, for which we have no cures, only diagnoses.
But in all of these responses to the End of History, there is a shared assumption: That we arrived at the End of History as a linear thing, the final end of a journey. The original thesis proposes that the line ended, and the various rejections all point to the line, heading ceaselessly into the unknown, and shout, “You’re wrong!”
But what if it isn’t? What if the End of History describes a real phenomenon, just in the wrong language? What if the truth lies somewhere between the hubris of treating the End as the “peak civilization” of liberalism and the pessimism of viewing it as the final exhaustion of Western stagnancy? What if the End of history isn’t so much a conclusion as it is a caesura—a pause after the endless motion of the country’s longest century?
Let me offer an alternative reading of the End of History, based on motion and the desire for rest. First, let’s grant that it happened: That there was (or is) a great ceasing, a great exhaustion. The previous interpretations have all suggested that this cessation, this End, is the result of some terminal linear trajectory.
What if, instead, History has Ended simply because we wanted it to? The greatest value of the End of History thesis isn’t that it might be true, but that we were so desperately exhausted by motion that we produced a culture capable of imagining it to be true.
So then what is the motion that might make an End seem desirable? If we paint a certain (I’ll admit biased) picture of the 20th century Western experience, it includes:
- industrialization (exhausting our free time);
- two world wars (exhausting everyone’s body and spirit),
- nuclearization (exhausting our peace of mind),
- secularization (exhausting our sense of order),
- democratization (intensifying our sense of personal accountability for our nation),
- globalization (intensifying our sense of personal accountability for the world),
- and digitalization (intensifying our sense of personal accountability to everyone and everything everywhere, including the constructed image of our own self).
This is not the careful progress of the End of History narrative, that crowns itself in Liberal ascent. We did not board the train of history with linear and businesslike detachment, reaching its End at some final destination. Instead, as Americans, we bounded to take our seats at the Merry-Go-Round of progress and power, full of the messy postwar glee of having earned our place at last.
Perhaps we thought we were going somewhere. Perhaps even then we had a sense of liberalism’s apotheosis in our heads. But whether we knew it or not we were really there for the same reason as anyone on an amusement park ride: The sheer experience of the thing. The feel of being at the top. The rush in the gut.
But once we boarded the Merry-Go-Round, the lights and color whirled for years. The feeling in the stomach folded in deeper than we meant to. Sick with each decade, we saw the world we were making melting into a more and more disorienting blur with every accelerating revolution.
When History Ended, it wasn’t because we had arrived where we intended. It was because collectively—after years of increasing power, responsibility, and anxiety—we dreamed that maybe, please, it could finally stop.
Of course, it didn’t, and can’t. The people who point at the line of history and laugh at the End have a point. When we stepped off the Merry-Go-Round of history, looking for a breather, we found ourselves still in motion—propelled by our own dizziness. Now we are groping about, moving in all directions at once.
This appears, from a certain position, to be stagnancy. But stillness can be the consequence of many disparate motions. So this little rereading of the End of History thesis can’t share the pure pessimism of much of the declinist writing about Western stagnation—it is still possible, amidst all the seeming quiet, that we are headed somewhere, and that direction might not simply be down, or backward, but off to the side in directions previously unimagined.
But we will we look back on the 20th century and remember color or nausea? The first and unknowable question is whether after looking backward at the carousel, America will decide it’d like to go round, again.