Who’s Afraid of the End of History?

Appears in Dialettica, storia e conflitto. Il proprio tempo appreso nel pensiero. Festschrift in onore di Domenico Losurdo, Napoli: Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, 2011, pp. 275-288.

In this paper I propose briefly to re-visit Francis Fukuyama’s in/famous end-of-history hypothesis, a little more than twenty years after the publication of his original essay in The National Interest. I will not delve again into the details of Fukuyama’s conception or compare his approach to that of his two main predecessors in the business of imagining a conclusion to history, Hegel and Kojève; both tasks have been adequately addressed by scholars such as Perry Anderson. [1] My purpose is rather to draw attention to what I deem an interpretative deficiency, a pervasive misapprehension of the real meaning of Fukuyama’s approach. It will be suggested, in very broad outline, that given his conservative affirmation of capitalism, the American political scientist did not really celebrate a post-historical epoch. On the contrary, he ought more properly to be understood as an ideological fighter against any such putative historical denouement.

What critics of Fukuyama habitually overlooked was the objectively dialectical nature of his analysis of capitalism. Fukuyama is not simply a champion of capitalism; like numerous other conservative thinkers he is, rather, deeply concerned about the immanent evolution of capitalism itself. Like Marx, Fukuyama is aware of the revolutionary nature of capitalism; unlike Marx, however, he is deeply apprehensive of such dynamism. The goal of his ideological intervention was thus to obstruct the further evolution of capitalism, to decree arbitrarily that such evolution had now been exhausted. And while critics on the left were right to give the lie to such contention, they were wrong to dismiss the end-of-history matrix itself. Here, they failed to notice the radical subtext of Fukuyama’s narrative. Contradicting him all too quickly and indiscriminately, they often became his unwitting associates in the preemptive strike against an end, if not to history, then at least to pre-history. [2] Such objective cooperation was facilitated by the fact such left-wing critics are sometimes less than truly dialectical in their analysis of capitalism; unmindful of what Marx, for one, called ‘the civilizing aspects of capital,’ they find it very difficult to appreciate what it is exactly that bothers Fukuyama about capitalism, or even perceive that he is indeed bothered. Instead, they mistake his position for simple smugness. This fallacy is further fuelled by the fact that much of today’s left-wing theory in reality partakes of some of Fukuyama’s elitist premises, notably his fear of the masses and his disdain of consumerism. Proceeding from such ‘anti-capitalist’ assumptions, the left thus proved singularly incapable of truly contesting Fukuyama’s conception.

Bourgeois detractors of the last man

In stark opposition to Fukuyama’s complacent image, reveling in the triumph of the liberal-capitalist order, there runs in reality a highly dismal streak through his narrative, which is evident for example in the very lines concluding his essay:

The end of history will be a very sad time. 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. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. … Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945 … Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again. [3]

As can be seen, rather than celebrating the end of history, Fukuyama warns against it, and even contemplates the possibility of forestalling such an end, of winding back the clock. To make sense of such vacillation, we need to bear in mind that when Fukuyama ponders the end of history, he draws upon two great philosophical traditions, which happen to be at odds with each other. This inner conflict is registered in the very title of his 1991 book, The End of History and the Last Man. And while the end of history is derived from the Hegelian tradition [4] the last man is of course a quintessential Nietzschean motif. And to Hegel’s confidence in the eventual triumph of reason, Nietzsche had responded with marked pessimism. His stance was sharply anti-Hegelian, involving a caustic negation of modernity and of the despicable ‘modern ideas.’

Nietzsche did not dispute Hegel’s prognosis as much as he reversed its value judgment. Rational modernity, he agreed, looks set to gain a decisive victory, yet of a classically Pyrrhic nature. Instead of leading humanity to new cultural summits, modernity signifies the dwarfing of humanity, a social — and economic — leveling down, the formation of a mass society at the heart of which stands ‘the most contemptible man: and that is the last man’; a dreary, pitiful, middling, herd animal: ‘Nobody grows rich or poor anymore: both are too much of a burden. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both are too much of a burden. No herdsman and one herd.’ [5] The last man may be pathetic and depressing to those who behold him from the outside, from a purportedly higher, would-be-aristocratic vantage-point. Yet he is subjectively a happy, contented fellow: ‘“We have discovered happiness,” say the last men and blink. … They still work, for work is entertainment. But they take care the entertainment does not exhaust them.’ His needs may be trifling but, as even Zarathustra must concede, they are well satisfied: ‘They have their little pleasure for the day and their little pleasure for the night.’ [6] The last man is thus a caricature of the modern, mass consumer. Yet this is, noticeably, a portrait of society shorn of any distinctive capitalistic qualities: there are no inequalities of income and buying power worth speaking of; no distinctions of status, elevating one person above another; no frenetic anxiety, no insecurity, no crises; only a peaceful, enjoyable, and egalitarian, living, working and consuming. Nietzsche provides us, in effect, with a caricature of post-capitalist society. Plebeian capitalism may be getting closer to that inglorious end station of human evolution, it may form its antechamber, but it is not quite there yet. Nietzsche thus preemptively strikes against a social constellation yet to materialize, a utopia; he does not reject the present — his present, our present — of a capitalist society in whose class structure, the Rangordnung, he is deeply implicated.

Considering Fukuyama’s Nietzschean footing, his ‘most ambivalent feelings’ and his ‘powerful nostalgia’ for the historical past, become comprehensible. For less then diagnose the end of history in the spirit of Hegel he warns against it along with Nietzsche. And Nietzsche was not the lone, subversive iconoclast, as he liked to portray himself and as he is conventionally construed by both critics and disciples. He gave rather a brilliant and acute expression to feelings and forebodings which, in embryonic form at least, were quite common among the Western elites and the middle classes. [7] The possibility of history coming to an end, traditionally raises deep anxieties in the bourgeois liberal-conservative camp. It is contemplated not with enthusiasm but with recoil. And in general, since the mid-19th century at the latest, the early bourgeois confidence in the prospects of progress and enlightenment begins to wane, and the dominant mood among centrist and right-wing circles becomes one of misgiving and dejection. Even as bourgeois civilization achieves its greatest social and economic triumphs, its leading intellectuals come to entertain serious doubts about its viability. Over the last 150 years, this pessimist disposition finds numerous articulations, scholarly, intellectual and artistic. I will recall a handful of relevant cases, just pointing at the tip of the iceberg (to be noted is Nietzsche’s almost ubiquitous presence).

Let us begin with Max Weber, a key figure in the German liberal tradition. One might expect ‘the bourgeois Marx’ to be sanguine about the future of capitalist civilization, as opposed to the skepticism of the real, ‘proletarian’ Marx. Yet Weber took his cue from Nietzsche and viewed the pleasure-seeking, soulless capitalism of modernity as a daunting fall from the early ‘heroic age of capitalism,’ characterized by lofty, ascetic moral values. The early, admirable capitalist specimen who ‘had no wish to consume but only to make profits,’ [8] was dutifully accompanied by an exemplary early worker, ‘kept in poverty’ and hence highly productive. The incipient capitalist ethos, Weber emphasized, ‘is imbued with the attitude that faithful work, even for low wages, by those to whom life has dealt no other opportunities, is highly pleasing to God.’ [9] In the famous, elegiac passages concluding his seminal book on the Protestant ethic, Weber bemoans the demise of the ascetic spirit and the rise of a materialistic civilization presided over by the last men:

In Baxter’s view, concern for outward possessions should sit lightly on the shoulders of his saints ‘like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become a shell as hard as steel. … Today its spirit has fled from this shell — whether for all time, who knows? … No one yet knows who will live in that shell in the future. Perhaps new prophets will emerge, or powerful old ideas and ideals will be reborn at the end of this monstrous development. Or perhaps — if neither of these occurs — ‘Chinese’ ossification … will set in. Then, however, it might truly be said of the ‘last men’ in this cultural development: ‘specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart, these nonentities imagine they have attained a stage of mankind never before reached.’ [10]

Werner Sombart, too, lamented the historical transition from early capitalist production of luxury goods for the consumption of a small elite, conducted at a relatively leisurely pace and with considerable margin of profit, to the hectic production characterizing modern capitalism, catering to the masses, where prices are low and so is profit:

When these bourgeois of the old style worked, they conducted their business in such a way, as to engage in the smallest possible number of business activities at any given time. … that was the business principle of the entrepreneur, back in those days. … That, for example, was the principle of the Dutch East India Company: to conduct ‘Small business with great profit.’ Hence their policies: to eradicate the leguminous trees, to burn up plentiful harvests, etc. This was done also in order to prevent the poor from partaking in the harmful consumption [Genuss] of the colonial products. It was basically selling to the rich, which is always more comfortable than selling to the great mass. [11]

Regretfully, this nearly idyllic state of things changes in the course of the 19th century, giving way to the new, debased, properly modern form of production and consumption, whose common denominator is massification. The venerate old principle of great profit at small investment, is completely reversed: ‘Today the aim is to earn a little out of many business transactions, a goal which is expressed in the leitmotif presiding over all branches of contemporary economic life: big volume of sales — small profit.’ This unwholesome shift comes complete with a sweeping moral erosion. Wistfully contemplating the fate of the classical ‘bourgeois virtues,’ Sombart raises the rhetorical question: ‘What has become of these virtues, which we have recognized as essential components in the structure of the capitalist spirit? Have diligence, thrift, respectability, industry, frugality, honesty [originally in English], still any meaning in the disposition of the capitalist entrepreneur?’ [12] Sombart’s argument comprises a condemnation of an alarming subversion of social roles: the masses, formerly excluded from participation in the benefits of production, have now become consumers, whereas the capitalist, formerly well in charge of the productive apparatus, is now enslaved by it, losing all autonomy: ‘Modern economic man … does not act out of virtue, he acts under compulsion. The tempo of the activity determines his own tempo. He can afford to be lazy just as little as the worker next to the machine can, whereas the craftsman could choose whether to be diligent or not.’ [13]

A poetic expression of the same forebodings is provided by T. S. Eliot, in his famous portrayal of the last men now appearing under the stage name of The Hollow Men (1925). For this hollow human specimen inhabits the world at its very last phases, facing an ignominious, profoundly anti-climactic finale:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper. [14]

Julius Evola, the fascist Italian thinker, who also supported German National Socialism, identified the modern age as the Kali Yuga of Hinduism, the last and lowliest in the cycle of civilizations. This is a time characterized by unparalleled social, cultural and ethical degeneration: ‘views of art begin to emerge that advocate an art for the use and consumption of the masses.’ [15] Ethical erosion is ‘particularly visible,’ when the aristocratic ideals of old are progressively replaced with the materialistic ideals of bourgeois ‘consumer society,’ and the proletarian cult of work. The ignoble, modern ideal, is ‘more fitting for a human animal: an easier life that is more enjoyable and safer with the maximization of one’s well-being and physical comfort.’ [16]

This thick layer of gloom, though, is occasionally punctured by glimmers of sunshine. One such instance is provided by Ernst Jünger in his influential essay On Pain, written and published in 1934. The diagnosis Jünger there puts forth, forms an exception within the broad discourse we have been surveying. Yet his point of departure is the same disheartening morass of consumerist modernity. This mockery of genuine culture is characterized by a shallow attempt to deny the ineluctability of pain and create a Schlaraffenland, based on ‘the biased belief’ that reason, technology and democracy can insulate humanity from suffering:

This belief is not only a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightenment, but is has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the last century, such as … the abolition of torture and the slave trade, the discovery of electricity, vaccination against measles, narcosis, the system of insurance, and a whole world of technical and political conveniences. … The breadth of people partaking of goods and pleasures is a sign of prosperity. Perhaps most symbolic are the grand cafés, … the true palaces of democracy. Here one senses the dream-like, painless, and oddly agitated ease that fills the air like a narcotic. On the streets it is striking how the masses are dressed in such undeniable poor taste, yet in a uniform and ‘respectable’ fashion. Bare and blatant poverty is rarely seen. [17]

Such unheard of degree of mass comfort is indeed, from Jünger’s elitist vantage-point, extremely displeasing, and would seem to leave little room for optimism. Yet what prevents On Pain from being yet another elegy or exhortation, is the fact that it is written in a time and a place where ‘the palaces of democracy’ have already been toppled down. Writing a year after Hitler’s rise to power, Jünger feels that he can, with malicious glee, pronounce the last man a thing of the past, a disease humanity has recovered from. The need to find a sanctuary from pain, Jünger maintains, ‘seems especially striking when contrasted with the hopes of the age of widespread security, whose values are still fully familiar to us today. The Last Man, as Nietzsche prophesized, is already history.’ [18] And, a little further down: ‘The prophecy of the Last Man has found rapid fulfillment. It is accurate — except for the assertion that the Last Man lives longest. His age already lies behind us.’ [19]

Unfortunately, however, the Third Reich fails to last for a thousand years, and in its aftermath, the last men resume their relentless march forward. This means that post-War Jünger is again forced to strike the old, familiar, dismal notes. This replenished sense of glumness is embodied, for example, in the persona of Richard, the heroic and aristocratic war veteran, unemployed hero of the novel The Glass Bees (1957). This representative of good old, gallant Prussia, is forced to prostitute his talents and seek a job in the mass entertainment factory of Zapparoni, a Walt Disney like magnate, producing films which make the ‘dreams of old utopians’ appear ‘coarse-grained in comparison.’ [20] The last men — just recently pronounced dead and buried — are back with a vengeance.

Closer to our days, and picking up on the cultural critique introduced by Weber and Sombart, the American sociologist, Daniel Bell, lamented at length the way that ‘the rise of mass consumption, or the diffusion of what were once considered luxuries to the middle and lower classes of society,’ [21] had ‘contributed to a loss of social authority on the part of the older value system.’ [22] This ‘new capitalism’ predicated on ‘pop hedonism,’ Bell made clear, was not simply unappealing but also positively dangerous, a ‘process which can only undermine the foundations of capitalism itself,’ [23] and end in the dethronement of the bourgeoisie.

Marx and the social individual

And the list of bourgeois pessimists can be extended indefinitely. From Nietzsche to Fukuyama, and beyond, there pervades a sense of anguish and unease. Whether at the liberal-center of the political spectrum — J. S. Mill, Weber, Bell, Fukuyama — or at the conservative-fascist pole — Evola, Jünger — the dominant mood is one of apprehension. Instructively, if one looks for a greater sense of confidence concerning the future of civilization, one would be better advised to turn to the great critics of bourgeois society and economy, the left in general, and the Marxist left in particular. Here, historically, the future has been envisaged with considerably more assurance. And in that regard, of course, the Hegelian origins of Marxism are significant. Already the very young Marx, in his most Hegelian mindset, famously proclaims that communism ‘is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be the solution.’ [24] In 1859 he updates this foundational notion: with the capitalist ‘social formation’ the ‘prehistory of human society’ comes to a close. [25] Communism can therefore be seen as the beginning of history.

Upon a new examination of the end-of-history narrative, the identity of the losers and the winners is no longer clear. At first sight, the liberal-capitalist camp appears to win a spectacular victory, while mortified Marxism evacuates the scene, never to return, the voluminous black book of communism tucked under its arm. But a second look at the balance of forces reveals the surprising possibility that it is Marx who is having the last laugh. Such inkling seems to inform Fukuyama’s story, which accounts for the author’s discomfort, and the proposition that history might have to be restarted. Fukuyama attacks Marxism, but does so with weapons taken very much from the arsenal of Marxism itself. An irony which did not escape the notice of astute observers on the right, notably Samuel Huntington, who had been quick to respond to Fukuyama:

Fukuyama’s thesis itself reflects not the disappearance of Marxism but its pervasiveness. His image of the end of history is straight from Marx. Fukuyama speaks of the ‘universal homogeneous state,’ in which ‘all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs are satisfied.’ What is this but the Marxist image of a society without class conflict or other contradictions organized on the basis of from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs? … Marxist ideology is alive and well in Fukuyama’s arguments to refute it. [26]

And indeed, to read Marx in conjunction with thinkers writing from a decidedly middle-class point of view, is frequently to come upon a paradox: Marx, the most trenchant critic of capitalism, the herald of the formidable communist specter, is much more sanguine about the future of ‘civilization’ than most of his bourgeois counterparts. And not merely on account of his faith in the imminent proletarian revolution which will offer humanity a clean slate, brushing aside bourgeois society and its iniquities. It is vitally important, today perhaps more than ever, to acknowledge the full import of the fact that Marx’s hopes for a better future were not, or not simply, the result of his belief in an external intervention which will terminate capitalism; rather, he considered capitalism itself to be intrinsically revolutionary. This was so much the case, that even the probability of a proletarian revolution was seen not as simple negation of capitalism, some defiant gesture against history, but as an upshot of capitalist dynamics itself:

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas and principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.

They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. [27]

Had this been otherwise, had Marx’s vision of socialism depended solely on external revolutionary intervention, then the pessimism characterizing much of leftist discourse in the post 1968 period, as well as Fukuyama’s obituary, might have been justified. Yet for Marx the prime revolutionary force in bourgeois society, and against it, is ‘the living contradiction,’ [28] capitalism itself. ‘The true barrier to capitalist production,’ Marx pithily states, ‘is capital itself.’ [29] The immanent, dialectical development of capitalism prepares the ground for a social transformation, both destructively — a point traditionally emphasized by leftists — and constructively, a point which they largely neglect. In a destructive sense, capitalism eats away at the props of the old society, religion, the family, traditional ideology, the old modes of production, etc. It thereby creates a social vacuum of sorts, which calls for new content. But it also contributes to a new society in a more constructive sense, being a ‘civilizing force’ — albeit as Marx tirelessly emphasizes, doing so despite itself, ‘malgre lui,’ against its intentions, etc. Among such civilizing aspects are to be counted the collectivization of work, the unprecedented enhancement of productivity, the (at least potential) shortening of the working day, made possible by mechanization, as well as the expansion of needs and of consumption:

[The capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour, which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests. [30]

This dialectical conception of capitalism explains why Marx and Engels (reference is here made usually to Marx, simply for the sake of convenience) are at all times fierce critics of bourgeois civilization, but never prophets of doom and decline, like many of their bourgeois interlocutors. And it must likewise be realized that bourgeois dejection, the counterpart of Marxist confidence, does not primarily reflect a premonition of a revolution, either. Rather, they were (are) uncomfortable amidst bourgeois society itself, as it then was (now is). Their fear, as Fukuyama put it, is that the liberal-democracies will ‘one day collapse from some kind of internal rot, much has communism has done.’ [31] They, the insiders, lament the present condition of bourgeois civilization; they fear the intrinsic evolution of this civilization just as much as the outsiders, Marx and Engels, embrace it.

I propose to render this seemingly contradictory fact palpable, by weighing Marx’s take on individualism against the approach of an important liberal contemporary, J. S. Mill. Mill, to start with, felt decisively ill at ease in massified modernity:

[T]he general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind. In ancient history, in the middle ages, and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time, the individual was a power in himself … At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of the masses. [32]

Mill writes in mid 19th century England, that is in a place and time of supposedly classical liberal conditions. So we should expect him to be at least reasonably content. Strikingly, he is very unhappy. Modernity is regarded a progressive decline of the individualistic spirit, and his ideal of individualism lies in the past. His narrative inverts conventional Whig history: individualism, that hallowed liberal tenet, was at its peak in ancient history and in the middle ages; from then on, up to ‘the present time,’ is a sad story of individual disempowerment, narrowing of personal initiative, and the rise of collectivism. Mill does not simply foresee certain pitfalls in the path of modern, liberal freedom, which ought prudently to be circumvented: rather, capitalist modernity itself seems to be the problem, taking as it does further and further distance from the individualistic beginnings of mankind. English democracy, when On Liberty was written (1859), was of course very limited, and socialism was a remote speculation. Yet Mill is very apprehensive. There is clearly something ominous and disquieting, from a bourgeois and pro-capitalist point of view, in the way capitalism itself is shaping up, politically, socially, culturally.

At almost exactly the same time (1857-8), and also in England, Marx is tackling the same phenomena from a very different vantage-point, in the Grundrisse. Instructively, Marx’s understanding of individualism forms nearly the converse of Mill’s. To be sure, Marx is a biting detractor of the notion that free market capitalism signifies the free development of individuals, let alone the historical peak in the development of individualism. This notion is deconstructed already in the Manifesto, where, against the empty bourgeois catchwords of ‘individualism’ and ‘culture’ it is asserted that, ‘in bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality,’ [33] and that the ‘culture, the loss of which [the bourgeois] laments, is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.’ [34] Ten years later, the insistence that bourgeois individualism is a sham is repeated almost verbatim: ‘It is not individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free.’ [35] ‘This kind of individual freedom,’ Marx adds shortly thereafter, is ‘the most complete suspension of individual freedom, and the most complete subjugation of individuality under social conditions which assume the form of objective powers, even of overpowering objects.’ [36]

Here it can be seen how, even as Mill and Marx criticize modern individualism, their premises are irreconcilable. Mill is concerned, in an elitist way, by the alleged disappearance of the genius, the unique individual vanquished by the masses, whereas Marx could not be more indifferent about the fate of the purported genius, and laments instead the subjugation of mass people, the way they are systematically prevented from developing their individualities. But the contrast between their respective outlooks goes deeper still: given their antagonistic social perspectives, they must also take a completely different view of the state of individualism in the past and of its future prospects. Since Mill essentially defends the ruling classes, it is natural that he should nostalgically evoke those past epochs when the chasm between the individuals of the elite and the masses was much wider. In his account, capitalist modernity stands accused for empowering the masses. And it is precisely in that sense that Marx is driven to defend capitalist modernity, albeit at all times dialectically. If modern individualism, for Marx, is profoundly insufficient and underdeveloped, this is true only when measured up against the yardstick of absolute human potential, to be further developed in the communistic future. Compared with the past, the bourgeois order signifies a great qualitative advance in individualism. Marx’s position is worth quoting at some length:

And, certainly, this objective connection [between individuals in capitalist society: I. L.] is preferable to the lack of any connection, or to a merely local connection resting on blood ties, or on primeval, natural or master-servant relations. … Universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control, are no product of nature, but of history. The degree and the universality of the development of wealth where this individuality becomes possible supposes production on the basis of exchange values as a prior condition, whose universality produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities. In earlier stages of development the single individual seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. [37]

Individualism, indeed, is an upshot of bourgeois modernity, a corollary of bourgeois relations of production and exchange. The task for the future is to build on the universality of the individual, while combating his alienation. One must criticize individualism as presently exists, but to lament the historical decline of individualism makes no sense (apart from an ideological and functional sense, obviously). Notice how the following, renowned passage from the Grundrisse, forms the negative image of the historical portrait drawn in On Liberty:

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole … Only in the eighteenth century, in ‘civil society,’ do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social … relations. The human being is in the most literal sense a Ζωοξ πομιτιλοξ [a political animal] not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society. [38]

Mill wishes to arrest history: shield the individual from massification, limit democracy, etc. Marx, on the contrary, urges history to go further. The cause of individualism can best be served by allowing history to run its course. Whereas Mill, and later Nietzsche in a still more emphatic and undiscriminating way, denounces modernity as the era of the herd-animal, Marx, in a notable passage, argues that modernity is an individualistic dissolution of the herd: ‘[H]uman beings become individuals only through the process of history. He appears originally as a species-being, clan being, herd animal … [E]xchange itself is a chief means of this individuation. It makes the herd-like existence superfluous and dissolves it.’ [39]

Where the likes of Mill, Tocqueville and Nietzsche fear collectivism, Marx identifies the promise of what he calls ‘the social individual.’ In marked contrast to Weber and Sombart, too, who as we saw idealized earlier, small-scale capitalist production and invested it with all sorts of ethical and spiritual advantages, the emergence of the social individual envisaged by Marx, while a mere embryonic phenomenon to be fully materialized in the future, is unthinkable without the thorough socialization of production brought about by properly modern, large-scale industry:

In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body — it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself. [40]

These insights were later integrated into Marx’s mature argument, unfolded in Capital. I provide just two examples:

Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. … [L]arge scale industry, through its very catastrophes, makes the recognition of variation of labour and hence of the fitness of the worker for the maximum number of different kinds of labour into a question of life and death. … That monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve, in misery, … must be replaced by the individual man who is absolutely available for the different kinds of labour required of him; the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of a specialized social function, must be replaced by the totally developed individual… [41]

Mass production, for Marx, was demeaning but also potentially emancipating: it propelled the socialization of work to a degree never before imagined, up to the point where no longer the isolated individual creates but society, society becoming the individual. In that regard, too, capitalism was sowing — ‘malgre lui‘ — the seeds of the future. [42]

This ‘transformation,’ Marx adds immediately, ‘has developed spontaneously from the foundation provided by large-scale industry.’ Similarly, in the third volume of Capital, Marx emphasizes that it ‘is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labour in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.’ [43] Significantly, in the very next page of this edition, Marx goes on to delineate the move form a realm of necessity to a realm of freedom.

This understanding of capitalism as preparing the ground for a higher form of individualism, is merely one of many aspects in which Marx reveals himself far more appreciative of the possibilities of progress contained within, and by capitalism, than most bourgeois thinkers. Alternatively put, they realize such possibilities as keenly as he does, but fear their emancipatory and subversive nature. They, too, can perceive the contours of the realm of freedom outlined at the historical horizon and, for that very reason, being not progressive but conservative, they turn their back on history, idealize pre-history, or think how to forestall the coming of utopia, launch a counter-movement of one sort or another. In contradistinction to those elitist critics who would have luxury in the hands of the privileged few, Marx underlines the way that capitalism tends, one might say, to democratize luxury: ‘the transformation of what was previously superfluous into what is necessary, as a historically created necessity — is the tendency of capital.’ [44] Similarly, Marx vindicates one of the most widely decried by-products of industrial development, the Malthusian bane of population growth, usually associated with ecological ruin, urban degeneration, and impossible strain on economical and natural resources. Where most bourgeois observers — and many on the left, too, it must be said — perceive the menace of the masses, Marx identifies not simply a quantitative increase in life, but also a qualitative betterment. As Justin Holt rightly emphasizes, in a recent study of Marx: ‘The increase in population alters our capacity to produce our lives because it allows new material manipulations of nature. More people allow new activities to be done that require greater amounts of people. … [P]opulation increases are a requirement for the division of labour, which further widens the scope of humans’ material abilities.’ [45]

Marx could swim with the current of history, so to speak, whereas bourgeois intellectuals had to swim against it. Think again of Nietzsche, the aristocratic radical who was, on the one hand, militantly on the side of capitalism, inasmuch as he affirmed inequality, exploitation, private property, and so on; yet, on the other hand, capitalism terrified him, precisely because he shared something of Marx’s dialectical vision of capitalism, albeit in a highly abstract form: he, too, realized the potential for the rise of ‘the social individual,’ and therefore had to rewrite him disparagingly as ‘the last man.’ For are they not, at bottom, one and the same individual, regarded from the opposing sides of the social and ideological divide? And once again, what I wish to highlight, is the way pessimism and distrust of the future are squarely on Nietzsche’s side:

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here — restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect. [46]

That is why Nietzsche is compelled to instigate a counter-movement, promote a radical ‘reevaluation of all values,’ and preach the overman, all in order to somehow change the tide of historical development. His sparse moments of expectation tellingly draw on the anticipation of a successful derailing of history. As in Ecce Homo:

A tremendous hope speaks out of this writing. … Let us look a century ahead, let us suppose that my attentat on two millennia of anti-nature and the violation of man succeeds. That party of life which takes in hand the greatest of all tasks, the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless extermination of all degenerate and parasitic elements, will again make possible on earth that superfluity of life out of which the dionysian condition must again proceed. [47]

Marx, by contrast, never pretends to be able to change history single-handedly, still less does he wishes to derail it; he expressly disowns the notion that communism aims to reshape reality in agreement with some ideal or moral system; his goal is rather to assist the revolutionary transformation which is already in the offing, ‘under our very eyes.’ Put in a different way, Marx is attempting to facilitate a successful childbirth; Nietzsche and co. are bent on inducing a miscarriage. The revolution is immanent; counter-revolution must be introduced from the outside, deus ex machina.

Consumer society versus capitalism

The end of history is thus scarcely a heartening hypothesis from a capitalist point of view. Consumer society, notably, inasmuch as it is seen as a mainstay of the post-historical era, the natural habitat of the last men, is consequentially a major target for bourgeois harangues. Its critics typically take for granted the self-serving myth that capitalism has eliminated poverty and universalized abundance, whereas Marx and Engels have repeatedly emphasized that capitalist social relations straightjacket mass consumption to the imperatives of surplus value extraction, hence keeping that consumption artificially well below the objectively available productive power of society. Under capitalism, Marx ascertains, ‘society’s power of consumption … is determined neither by the absolute power of production nor by the absolute power of consumption but rather by the power of consumption within a given framework of antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the vast majority of society to a minimum level, only capable of varying within a more or less narrow limits.’ [48]

Notwithstanding his reputation as a superficial optimist celebrating consumerism, Fukuyama is hardly an exception to this rule; his critiques of consumerism are very much in the spirit of the cultural pessimism of his illustrious, Nietzschean predecessors. He speaks, for example, about ‘the banalization of life through modern consumerism,’ [49] and underscores the way that consumerism generates false needs which lead to perennial dissatisfaction. [50] Yet there is more to this than simple snobbery; consumerism, for Fukuyama, far from being identical with capitalism, entails a threat to the bourgeois socioeconomic order. He is painfully aware of the fact that capitalist profit and consumer spending are not, as conventionally assumed, two sides of the same coin. To the extent that capitalism encourages consumption, it does so as a means to an end, the end being accumulation. Inciting the masses to consume, to enjoy themselves, is fine as long as the masses respect the order of priorities and not posit their enjoyment as a goal in itself. Once the priorities are upturned, and the principle of consumption is seen as independent from, or indeed superior to that of accumulation, the entire capitalist economic system must appear irrational and questionable. At such juncture, there emerges the danger that the social individual might just come into her own, and demand that the phantasmagoria of ‘consumer society’ become a reality.

Fukuyama usefully distinguishes between two main vectors which co-operate — awkwardly, delicately and perhaps only transiently — in liberal democracy: pleasurable consumption, on the one hand, and the Nietzschean pursuit of megalothymia, the competitive strife for recognition, on the other hand. It is important to trace his exact argument here. Firstly, let us confirm how Fukuyama stresses the difference between the two vectors:

Capitalism does not just permit, but positively requires, a form of regulated and sublimated megalothymia in the striving of businesses to be better than their rivals. At the level at which entrepreneurs like a Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, or Ted Turner operate, consumption is not a meaningful motive … They do not risk their lives, but they stake their fortunes, status, and reputations for the sake of a certain kind of glory; they work extremely hard and put aside small pleasures for the sake of larger and intangible one … The classical capitalist entrepreneur described by Joseph Schumpeter is therefore not Nietzsche’s last man[51]

We should also spell out the elitism underlying Fukuyama’s conception, because it makes clear that consumption and megalothymia are not considered universal human attributes, inherent to the human psyche, being, rather, unmistakably social attributes: consumption satisfies the masses, competitive pursuit the select few: ‘Those whom the old, pre-democratic world failed to satisfy were the vast majority of mankind; those left unsatisfied in the modern world of universal recognition are many fewer in numbers.’ [52] This point is significant, because it acknowledges the possibility, catastrophic from Fukuyama’s pro-capitalist point of view, that the masses shall one day, with the end of history, choose to discard the Nietzschean elite and pursue a path of peaceful, egalitarian consumption. At that point, Fukuyama, denying the autonomous value of consumption, issues an implicit, but nonetheless potent, threat:

While we do not, for now, have to share Nietzsche’s hatred of liberal democracy, we can make use of his insights concerning the uneasy relationship between democracy and the desire for recognition. That is, to the extent that liberal democracy is successful at purging megalothymia from life and substituting for it rational consumption, we will become last men. … But human beings will rebel at this thought. … They will want to be citizens rather than bourgeois, finding the life of masterless slavery — the life of rational consumption — in the end, boring[53]

The implicit threat can be heard most emphatically in those two words, which I have emphasized: ‘for now.’ That is, ‘we’ (read: those few unsatisfied with liberal democracy) will tolerate this ignoble social order only for as long as it abides by capitalism, and respects the right of the Nietzschean entrepreneurs to amass wealth, albeit for thymotic purposes, which allegedly disregard material pleasure. If, on the contrary, ‘the vast majority of mankind’ dare reverse the order of priorities, and place rational consumption above the will to power, then count the few as your deadly enemies. Then ‘we’ might topple democracy, and embrace an authoritarian, militarist solution. The following lines again comprise an encoded, but for all that patent admonition:

It is the very design of democratic capitalist countries like the United States that the most talented and ambitious natures should tend to go to business, rather than into politics, the military, universities, or the church. And it would seem not entirely a bad thing for the long-run stability of democratic politics that economic activity can preoccupy such ambitious natures for an entire lifetime. This is not simply because such people create wealth which migrates through the economy as a whole, but because such people are kept out of politics and the military[54]

In other words, ‘for your own good, do not mess with the prerogatives of capitalists or else, instead of Turners and Fords, you might get Mussolinis and Pinochets!’ The readers are here allowed a glimpse of the slow fascist fire burning underneath liberalism, the way certain, economic liberals, lend strictly functional and conditional adherence to democracy, and are willing to stamp it out once it interferes with the elites’ economic freedoms. [55]

Fukuyama’s precise point, thrown again into vivid relief, is not to welcome the consumerist end of history but to warn against sliding into it. Such an end must be suspended indefinitely, humanity must remain frozen in time, at just that prehistoric point where thymotic capitalism is best served. And here are simultaneously revealed the importance of Fukuyama’s text as well the short-sightedness in the myriad left-wing, hasty dismissals of his thesis. By construing him as a complacent optimist, or — as a minority of left-wing critics have done — by underlining the validity of his claim that no radical alternative to liberalism remains, these critics have overlooked the valuable potential for radical politics which he, inadvertently, exposes, if only in order to immediately disallow. Instead of either rushing to refute Fukuyama tout court, or to accept his fundamental thesis and pessimistically resign oneself to the triumph of capitalism, [56] the left would have been better advised to affirm his basic insight, and draw hopeful conclusions from it. In the end of history diagnosis, they should have been able to identify Marx’s end of pre-history, and pursue such project of mass happiness and sovereignty in spite of Fukuyama’s injunctions. Conditioned, however, by their own unconscious elitism and by an un-dialectical aversion to consumerism, the left was preordained to give Fukuyama the short shrift. The right — usually more adroit in defending the interests of the elite, than the left is in defending those of the masses — was quite right to reject Fukuyama: Huntington did point out his Marxist affinity, did warn against the hazardous game he was playing. The left unfortunately missed the point. It is high time that such blind-spot is recognized, and eliminated. The end of capitalist history is worth fighting for. Fukuyama is the latest among a long line of thinkers showing us how the issue of mass consumption can be a vital weapon in that struggle. It would be unwise of the left to continue its attacks on capitalism as a consumer paradise. What is called for is rather a critique of the rule of Nietzschean megalothymia. The last man is knocking on the door; let us not obstruct his entry.

References

  • Anderson, Perry 1992, ‘The Ends of History,’ in A Zone of Engagement, London, New York: Verso, pp. 279-375.
  • Bell, Daniel 1976, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, New York: Basic Books.
  • Eliot, T. S. 1991, Collected Poems, 1909-1962, New York: Harcourt.
  • Elliott, Gregory 2008, Ends in Sight: Marx/Fukuyama/Hobsbawm/Anderson, London: Pluto.
  • Evola, Julius 1995, Revolt against the Modern World, Rochester: Inner Traditions International.
  • Fukuyama, Francis 1989, ‘The End of History?’ The National Interest, 16, pp. 3-18.
  • Fukuyama, Francis 2006, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Free Press.
  • Holt, Justin P. 2009, Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Nature, Action and Society: A New Analysis, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. 1989, ‘No exit: The Errors of Endism,’ The National Interest, 17, pp. 3-11.
  • Jünger, Ernst 2000, The Glass Bees, New York: NYRB.
  • Jünger, Ernst 2008, On Pain, New York: Telos.
  • Landa, Ishay 2009, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, Boston and Leiden: Brill.
  • Losurdo, Domenico 2004, Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.
  • Losurdo, Domenico 2005, Controstoria del liberalismo, Rome and Bari: Editori Laterza.
  • Mandel, Ernest 1978, Late Capitalism, London, New York: Verso.
  • Marx, Karl 1974, Early Writings, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl 1990, Capital. Vol. 1, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl 1991, Capital. Vol. 3, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl 1993, Grundrisse, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich 2005, The Communist Manifesto, Chicago, IL: Haymarket.
  • Mill, John Stuart 1998, On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich 1968, The Will to Power, New York: Vintage.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich 1969, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Nietzsche , Friedrich 1992, Ecce Homo, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Noys, Benjamin 2009, ‘On Gregory Elliott’s Ends in Sight: Marx/Fukuyama/Hobsbawm/Anderson,’ Historical Materialism 17.4, pp. 157-163
  • Sombart, Werner 2003 [1913], Der Bourgeois. Zur Geistesgeschichte des modernen Wirtschaftsmenschen, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Weber, Max 2002, The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ Of Capitalism, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  1. See notably Anderson 1992. 

  2. These ideas are significantly fleshed out in a much broader study I currently work on, which re-examines the civilizational import of the so-called ‘consumer society’; the following is thus not meant as a definitive statement, not even on the end-of-history question, but as a mere indication of where I am going with this study, a foretaste of what I hope will eventually become a more nutritious and satisfying meal. 

  3. Fukuyama 1989, p. 18. 

  4. Although Hegel himself never used the term as such. 

  5. Nietzsche 1969, pp. 45-46. I occasionally depart from the translation, in agreement with the original German. 

  6. Ibid, pp. 46-47. 

  7. See Domenico Losurdo’s important study (2004). 

  8. Weber 2002, p. 22. 

  9. Ibid, p. 119. 

  10. Ibid, p. 121. 

  11. Sombart 2003, pp. 201-202. 

  12. Ibid, p. 236. 

  13. Ibid, p. 237. 

  14. Eliot 1991, p. 82. 

  15. Evola 1995, p. 177. 

  16. Ibid, pp. 331-2. 

  17. Jünger 2008, pp. 10-13. 

  18. Ibid, p. 9. 

  19. Ibid, p. 13. 

  20. Jünger 2000, p. 38. 

  21. Bell 1976, p. 65. 

  22. Ibid, p. 75. 

  23. Ibid, p. xxvii. 

  24. Marx 1974, p. 348. 

  25. Ibid, p. 426. 

  26. Huntington 1989, p. 10. 

  27. Marx, Engels 2005, p. 59. 

  28. Marx 1993, p. 421. 

  29. Marx 1991, p. 358. 

  30. Marx 1993, p. 287. 

  31. Fukuyama 2006, p. 288; emphasis added. 

  32. Mill 1998, pp. 73-4. 

  33. Marx, Engels 2005, p. 62. 

  34. Ibid, p. 64. 

  35. Marx 1993, p. 650. 

  36. Ibid, p. 652. 

  37. Ibid, pp. 161-2. 

  38. Ibid, p. 84. 

  39. Ibid, p. 496. 

  40. Ibid, p. 705. 

  41. Marx 1990, pp. 617-18. 

  42. For a useful discussion of this ‘objective socialization of production’ see Mandel 1978. 

  43. Marx 1991, p. 959. 

  44. Marx 1993, p. 528. 

  45. Holt 2009, pp. 51-2. 

  46. Nietzsche 1968, p. 3. 

  47. Nietzsche 1992, pp. 51-2. I have changed R. J. Hollingdale’s translation of Vernichtung from ‘destruction,’ to ‘extermination.’ 

  48. Marx 1991, p. 352; emphases added. 

  49. Fukuyama 2006, p. 4. 

  50. Ibid, p. 84. 

  51. Ibid, p. 316; emphases added. 

  52. Ibid, p. 334. 

  53. Ibid, p. 314; emphases added. 

  54. Ibid, p. 316; emphases added. 

  55. I have elaborated on the structural, dictatorial-cum-fascist propensity of liberalism, in Landa 2009. See also the excellent historical deconstruction of the conventional image of liberalism in Domenico Losurdo’s path-breaking study (2005). 

  56. As Anderson (1992) and Elliott (2008) appear to have done: see Noys (2009) useful review of Elliott’s book.