Who Really Takes Fukuyama Seriously?

18:46 Tue 17 Feb 2009
[, , , ]

I just watched this Slavoj Žižek lecture, which he gave at Google NYC and which I recommend, and was somewhat shocked at an answer he gave to the question (at about 1:03:10 in) “how do you respond to claims that Marxism and radicalism are dead?”—he answered, “the only serious question we have is this one, is Fukuyama, Francis, right or not?”

I haven’t read The End of History and the Last Man, but I’m familiar with its overall argument, which is what Žižek is referring to here:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such… That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
—Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

The reason I haven’t read the book, and that I was so shocked to hear Žižek give its argument such prominence, is that the answer is obvious: of course Fukuyama is wrong. It has always seemed to me, and still seems to me now, that this claim was a kind of opportunistic ideological landgrab, wherein Fukuyama surveyed the conceptual landscape, saw that after the collapse of the Soviet Union that socialism had been deprived of its only alleged real-world champion (although there’s still Cuba, but hey), and further that since the perceived major ideological battle had been between capitalism and communism, therefore only capitalism had any real backing—so let’s go ahead and declare it not merely the short-term “winner” but also the only possible ideology, for all future time.

This is a serious argument? I can understand why it got such acclaim—because it served a clear ideological purpose itself—but to hear that anyone actually takes it seriously, much less someone like Slavoj Žižek, was a stunner.

There are more, but just one strikingly obvious reason why “Western liberal democracy” cannot (and couldn’t in 1991 either) be universalized is this: Western “liberal democratic” capitalism isn’t merely a system of governance, or an economic approach, but also the dominant sector in an essentially colonialist global political/economic system, and is successful in large part through its appalling success in rapaciously exploiting much of the rest of the world. It depends upon clearly unequal power relations with the rest of the world, and these relations have long depended on the West deliberately suppressing the expansion of liberal democracy to its client supply states.

I can see how Žižek nevertheless has to grapple with Fukuyama’s theory because of its popularity, but really its inherent ridiculousness (not to mention its propaganda value and sickeningly self-congratulatory nature) should be pointed out whenever it’s mentioned.

Further, Fukuyama’s claim that ideological history has ended supposes that Western liberal capitalism will somehow be stable enough to survive indefinitely as the only contender for a system of governance, and that is also simply ridiculous. No historical ideology has ever survived like that, and the shortsightedness of such a claim should be clearly evident.

If Žižek is right that most leftists accept that most leftists today just want capitalism that’s “a little bit better”, that explains why he feels the Fukuyama idea is the key one to be addressed, but regardless, I really wish I’d been at that lecture so that I could have asked him “but isn’t anyone who believes that Fukuyama could be right being a total idiot?”

« (previous)

2 Responses to “Who Really Takes Fukuyama Seriously?”

  1. helen Says:

    Oooh, good points indeed. But the thing about Žižek’s argumentation is that he is very fond of the seemingly simplistic rhetorical figure to illustrate a profound point, and he is even more fond of the straw man. Fukuyama performs that function perfectly. Moreover, Žižek churns out lectures and publications so fast that I suspect he doesn’t have time to update his examples all that often.

    Though interestingly, when I did hear Žižek speak last year, I was bowled over by how well he took questions: he listened carefully, and gave a reasoned and informed answer to precisely the question that the questioner wanted asked, not the question that Žižek might have preferred to hear, no matter how inarticulate or ill-informed the speaker. So he probably would have given you a cogent engagement with Fukuyama and his intellectual trajectory (you know Fukuyama has since recanted?), but Žižek just enjoys the polemics too much to include the finer nuances in his lectures…

  2. Connor Says:

    I think that, in part, Žižek’s emphasis on the global ecological crisis serves as a head-on rebuttal to the capitalistic liberalism being the end. The idea that liberal capitalism is in its final stage and is the final political and economic super-structure, while it may be an appealing idea and seemingly obvious after the Cold War, faces the readily apparent issues of ecological stability (resource management, climate, pollution, etc.).
    In “What is Enlightenment” Kant wrote of a culture on the verge of finality. To Kant the Enlightenment could not be stopped, perhaps only slowed. Fukuyama seems to think that the product of the Enlightenment, as Kant saw it, is, nearly, realized. Fukuyama seems to adjust Kant’s position, renewing the debate from the Enlightenment philosophers vs. the likes of Nietzsche, Foucault and Adorno with the flavor of the postmodern age.
    [I hope Žižek keeps fighting]

Leave a Reply