Monday, May 30, 2011

can you really be late after the end of history?

An interesting if brief interview with Francis Fukuyama, perhaps best known for his The End of History and the Last Man . Rather than being consigned to the scrap heap of immediate post-Cold War triumphalism like Samuel Huntington and his thesis on The Clash of Civilizations , Fukuyama has a new 2 volume book in the works called The Origins of Political Order , with the first volume already in stores. The goal? To describe the development of political institutions since the beginning of history.

Nineteen years have cooled Fukuyama's triumphant enthusiasm for liberal democracy. Now he's not sure an American-styled, voter-driven political system is the cat's meow. Noting the successes of post-Mao China, Singapore, and pre-bursted bubble Japan, he can see the positive in more authoritarian forms of government. Rather than responding to the beliefs of the anti-intellectual masses and ending up in constant gridlock through checks & balances, authoritarian governments have the advantage of decisive and effective decision-making. This efficiency, however, often comes at the price of popular support and, in the long-term, stability.

But rather than learning his lesson, Fukuyama falls back on the intellectual crutch of meta-narratives. In his new book, he lays out the three characteristics of a modern state: formal bureaucratic institutions, the rule of law, and accountability. Based on these characteristics, he traces the development of the "modern state." The first volume covers pre human history up through the French Revolution. Volume Two should carry us up through today.

Eschewing the traditional eurocentric narrative that begins with England, Fukuyama finds the roots of the modern state in ancient China with its meritorious civil service exams and governance through bureaucrats. But the lack of high-level abstraction in Chinese thinking, he argues, is responsible for China falling behind Europe in the 17th through 19th centuries.

While the more localized questions he raises are interesting, the overall premise of Fukuyama's treatise, that there is such a thing as a "modern state" and history progresses towards its achievement, smacks of the same Hegelian dialectic that produced _The End of History_. Jacques Derrida 's criticism of that "New Gospel" of the "Christian eschatology" equally applies to the themes of this new work:
For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity. Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.
Although he couches and hedges his support for liberal democracy given its obvious failures since the fall of the Soviet Union (the global financial meltdown caused by the prophets of profits and de-regulation of American capitalism being the most recent and persuasive), Fukuyama's "modern state" at the apotheosis of historical development nonetheless stands in the shadow of this form of government; the characteristics of a "modern state" are very much the definition in abstract of a liberal democracy.

It's interesting to put Fukuyama's assumptions about the way the world works next to the methodology of Michel Foucault where progress as the structure of history is denied and power, rather than being concentrated in the form of a state or held collectively by the populace, works by investing itself at ever more microscopic levels into the body politic from dispersal across the social rather than in its accumulation.

Big stories make for flashy, attractive tropes that are easily assimilated into the popular mythos. Witness the recent box office success of 5 Fast 5 Furious. But easy to digest doesn't necessarily make it healthy. Diet, Nietzsche suggested, makes the character of a civilization. And I don't think he was just talking about brats and beer.

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