Huntington vs. Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s thesis that liberal democracy is “the end of history” rests on his contention that the “twin pillars” of whirlwind material acquisition driven by free-markets and the scientific method, and the “universal recognition” afforded to human dignity by democracy, will prove irresistibly compelling to all those with whom they interact: liberal democracy, he insists, satisfies both eros and thumos to a degree unparalleled in any other culture.

Nevertheless, Fukuyama admits that liberalism and economic modernization act as solvents to the the traditional elements of civilizational culture: religion, family, cultural tradition. He acknowledges that democracies must find some way of moderating their tendency towards “atomism” if they are to maintain anything like a common economic and political life, and that this moderation must mean accomodating various forms of “irrational” mediating institutions.

The big question mark hanging over F.’s argument is whether liberalism might prove to be too irresistibly atomizing, whether its love of individualism and equality might not sap the cultural sources of creativity, respect for human dignity, and civic participation requisite for a functioning society. Demographic collapse, the slow atrophying slide into cultural depravity and infantilism, or a nihilistic outpouring of violent ennui (a la Paris 1968): any of these, or more, might be the source of Western liberalism’s decline.

Fukuyama is right, however, that Western modernity has left an indelible stamp over most of the world: even if Huntington is right that a “clash of civilizations” will be the dominant model of global interaction in coming decades, it will be a clash between players deeply shaped by Western civilization. Islamist terrorists communicate by internet; Hindu nationalists vie for seats in a British-style Parliament; Chinese workers inhabit an industrialized economy increasingly geared to individual initiative and innovation. The world’s best universities are all in the style of Western education, and they will likely have to be to facilitate economic modernization.

The trademark of civilizational struggle will then be the ability of historically stable “center” cultures to absorb Western influence, but modulate it in a distinctively Confucian, Hindu, Slavic, or Islamic key, and then bring those influences to bear in a continuing struggle for geo-political dominance. Fukuyama seems blinded to the incredible staying power of religious and cultural tradition, as his continued references to such artifacts as “irrational” attests. In their encounter with the West, traditional cultures may not be able to avoid becoming more individualistic, demoratic, or economically liberal; however, that in itself does not necessarily mean entering the liberal democratic “end of history” prophesied by Fukuyama.

The key in all of this is recognize the limitless power of traditions to hybridize, of history to invert and harmonize with itself: “the end of history” may prove only to be the West’s slow descent into saccharine oblivion, while partially-Westernized Hindu and Confucian empires enact an elaborate geo-political dance in the East, and more regional and local political forms spiderweb the maps of Africa and Latin America, where religion and culture increasingly come to hold precedence over nationalism. Or, it might end to be something different altogether.

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