A controversial book that created a storm of derision and disbelief when it came out following the collapse of communism in 1992. Fukuyama argues how the West’s liberal capitalist democratic model of governance has become the epitome of human civilization. The West represents the final step in mankind’s political evolution.
Fukuyama says that there are no other political models to truly challenge liberalism. Authoritarian regimes of both the right and left political wings will rise but eventually fall. Globalization is just the latest incarnation of the Western model being embraced by most of the world community. It is too deeply rooted to ever see a major reversal. Liberalism, capitalism, and democracy have won and the ideological conflict of the past 20th century is over. Fukuyama named his book in part because he believes that Hegel’s view that human society would evolve into rationale governance has arrived and history has ended.
Following 9-11 many considered this book to be irrelevant. Despite its title, Fukuyama did not predict an end to conflict between the West and other ideologies. Some countries or regions might fall under the sway of religious fundamentalism (Middle East) or cultural co-opting of capitalism (Asia), but these will not outlast liberalism. Like communism they will minimally challenge the West, but will eventually wither away because liberalism, capitalism, and democracy does a better job of meeting its people’s needs.
This is where Fukuyama shifts his focus to the internal and psychological dimension. The challenge to liberal capitalist democracies now becomes internal and much more nefarious. Because of its success at meeting its citizens needs, liberal capitalist democracies run the risk of encouraging its citizens to be less than what they could be. Its people will become lazy, selfish, and too contented or as Fukuyama poetically defines as “men without chests.” Will we, once fully satiated, strive to improve ourselves? Will those at the top of the social scale demand more because they contribute more? Will those at the bottom of the social scale demand that the rich be brought to their level? What will men value when they have everything?
To answer these questions Fukuyama looks away from Hegel’s historical philosophy to the psychological insights of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche who is known to play with the philosophy of nihilism, helps Fukuyama define that in attaining utopia we may instead be faced with a sad realization that with everything being satisfied we will find our lives empty and meaningless. The risk is that man will cease to be man, the last man being the person who pushes past the allures of comfort, thus completing the title of this book.
Yet Fukuyama says that it is unlikely for that outcome to take place. He interprets the evolution of the human psyche along the dimensions of Desire, Reason, and Thymos. Desire is the basis of man’s material needs and is met by our modern consumerist and capitalistic society. Reason is the basis of our need to know and is met by our scientific progress and advances in technology. It is the Thymos (a concept first conceived of by the Greeks) that gives man his essence. Thymos is interpreted as being one’s self-worth, self-esteem, and desire to be recognized. It can be destructive if not controlled or subdued, but at its best, will mitigate people becoming too contented. It is the Thymos that powers our personal choices.
The challenge to each of us is what do we choose? The allure of security and material wealth or something freer, deeper, and potentially more dangerous? Fukuyama like the best philosophers does not tell us the answer but instead defines the question each of us must answer. How we answer it will, as always, determine our individual and collective future.
Fukuyama is a beautiful writer and his style is easily accessible to everyone including those who are not steeped in philosophy. He poetically weaves philosophy, history, and political science into a brilliant argument that emphasizes the preeminence of individual choice. It is a book that deserves to be mused about and studied thanks to its layers of meaning and depth of understanding.
(4.5 stars out of 5 – defining of an era & philosophy)