Future past

The End of the End

Anti-West Source Imago-DISTORTED
An anti-American protest at Vladivostok, Russia.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Capitalism has become increasingly dysfunctional, protecting the power of global banks and companies, our author argues. The West needs to reaffirm its values and identity, if it is to expect to have any influence in the future.

  • Facts


    • Francis Fukuyama is an American policical scientist, economist and author of “The End of History and the Last Man.”
    • Back in 1961, the German philosopher Arnold Gehlen coined the term “post-history.” He asserted that the only task remaining in politics was to perfect the pursuit of humanity’s well being, all other goals having disappeared.
    • German political scientist Herfried Münkler said the West has become an ensemble of “post-heroic” nations that sporadically take on the task of policing the world.
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In his famous 1989 essay, U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and proclaimed the “end of history.” The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states fostered hopes of a post-ideological era – in which universally accepted values would prevail and constitutional democracy and civil rights would become the international norm. 

 The “end of history,” we thought, would be a peaceful period of cooperation that would go on and on. The era of wars and battles would be followed by a communal ordering of the world according to Western sensibilities, in a constant refinement of global governance.

It seemed the most gratifying moment of the 20th century – and what a mistake it was. Today, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West is on the defensive almost everywhere. Militarily stretched, financially exhausted and ideologically drained, its attractiveness has diminished in the eyes of the world.  

According to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, most democracies suffered some kind of setback between 2011 and 2013. India and Brazil are rejecting the rules of Western-dominated organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In Japan and Turkey, militant cultural nationalism is widespread. In China, Communist party cadres refuse to be preached to about freedom and civil rights. In Russia, Vladimir Putin brings his nation’s testosterone into play against everything he denounces as liberal decadence. And in the Middle East and Africa, religious fundamentalists feel only hate and contempt for our notions of tolerance and pluralism.

The conservative-fundamentalist Tea Party in the United States and radical right-wing populists in Europe share a common basis, combining resentment over lost prosperity and fear of declining social status with bias and prejudice.

Even worse than external enemies is the loss of energy in our own Western values. According to German political scientist Herfried Münkler, the West has turned into an ensemble of “post-heroic” nations that sporadically take on tasks of policing the world, if at all. It is now a confederation of demographically weak, economically crisis-ridden countries that are prone to being challenged.

At the same time, the West has become frighteningly foreign, even hostile to itself. In the name of freedom, it has conducted internationally illegal wars, as in Kosovo. It has fabricated proofs of guilt in order to justify military actions, as in Iraq. It has killed hundreds of civilians with drone attacks, as in Afghanistan, and set up unsanctioned prisons to extract information through torture. The intelligence services of Western nations even spy on friends who are proud of their culture of free thought.

The confidence in the “community of Western values” has come to an end for now. The missionary-like belief in the superiority of a commercial society – in which responsible citizens engage in organized competition – threatens to turn into impotent cynicism, political disdain and self-hate. Many people in the United States and Europe are cut off from the fruits of growth created by capitalism. They are dead tired of the belt-tightening rhetoric and unprincipled liberalism of their governments. They cast their votes in a mood of chauvinism, xenophobia and anti-solidarity.

The conservative-fundamentalist Tea Party in the United States and radical right-wing populists in Europe share a common basis, combining resentment over lost prosperity and fear of declining social status with bias and prejudice.

In both the United States and Europe, right-wing demagogues have begun a revolt against the political establishment. They campaign against the left-liberal imperative to inclusiveness and a creed of tolerance preached by the conscientious and kind-hearted. Both direct vociferous rhetoric against a permissiveness that, in the name of shared humanity, expects them to understand and accept everything that goes against their grain – homosexuality, feminism, migration and the global economy.

“Putin is defending European civilization,” asserts the French radical right-wing politician, Marine Le Pen. She goes on to thunder against Barack Obama, the planned trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement and the “European Soviet Union” in Brussels. “I want to destroy the E.U., the anti-democratic monster,” she proclaims.

The West no longer has an answer to this willful destructiveness. The end of the Cold War and of political religion did not free up intellectual energies in the United States and Europe, but instead created a “spiritual vacuum,” writes U.S. economic scholar Mark Lilla. “Since Western democracies are no longer faced with a challenge from communism, they have no incentive to think about their own normative foundations.”

Capitalism has become increasingly dysfunctional. It turns the principles of the market economy – competition and diffusion of power – upside-down.

So it is revealing today that we find our self-assurance only in negative stances. We are against repression, violence, nepotism and arrogance of power. But do we also know what we stand for? We are apparently not satisfied by the liberal promise of individual freedoms and “prosperity for everyone.” This is a liberalism that no longer knows how to make the connection between 1789 and 1989. It lacks the sense of a long, violent history of secularization and emancipation in the West — and it rails against everything that isn’t up to the level of its own era. This is a liberalism that proceeds thoughtlessly, with no direction and no goal. No one in the West has any idea how to defend the concept of collective identity any longer.

Back in 1961, the German philosopher Arnold Gehlen summarized the ambivalence of soulless progress: “The premises (of the Enlightenment) are dead,” he wrote.  “(Only) their consequences continue.” In view of Jacobinism, Fascism and Stalinism, Mr. Gehlen believed there was no longer any reason to hope for improvements in human reason. Instead, he saluted scientific and economic progress as “an inviolable law governing the life of humanity.” Mr. Gehlen believed that modernism was built on solid foundations, and there was no longer an imminent goal for extending it. 

Three decades before Mr. Fukuyama, Mr. Gehlen coined the term “post-history.” The only task remaining in politics was to perfect the pursuit of humanity’s well being. He believed that all will, meaning, and goals had disappeared from the course of events. The rest of history was “a carrying-on for its own sake” – a cultivation of boredom, gray and compulsory, with no alternative.

Mr. Fukuyama’s “end of history” was an optimistic philosophy of history in which the ideals of liberalism, market economy and democracy are realized in the “absolute, reasonable final purpose of the world.” Mr. Gehlen’s “post-history” was more of a senseless winding down of historical processes. So you can get to the core of the Western identity crisis better with Mr. Gehlen’s perspective: If political progress comes to a standstill because it lacks alternatives – and culture exhausts itself in self-references –  then capitalism cannot be allowed also to give up the ghost as a prosperity-creating machine.

That is precisely the case today. Capitalism has become increasingly dysfunctional. It turns the principles of the market economy – competition and diffusion of power – upside-down. It protects the power of global banks and companies. And the favorite formula of international business, “change through trade,” is too often lacking.

Instead, authoritarian capitalisms present themselves self-confidently as post-economic competitive products. Liberalism gets the short end of the stick, not global corporations. They expand the property of their stockholders in countries like Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi – and employees, customers and consumers are affected.

When capital flows to where tax rates or wages or social standards are low, the market is no longer based on a functioning liberal system of order. Instead it accepts and promotes the status quo in those countries.

What the West desperately needs now is the ability to question itself. Its foundations — liberalism, a market economy, democracy — continue to retain their appeal around the world, but they need to be reaffirmed once again. 


 This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: dieter.schnaas@wiwo.de

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