Here’s how “The End of History and the Last Man,” the 1992 best seller of political philosopher and Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama, ends: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” Clearly, the engines of history restarted and have been working at warp speed in the past three decades.
When I spoke with Fukuyama on Skype recently, I asked him why liberal democracy creates so much boredom. He sighed and smiled, but instantly pointed out a contradiction that is central to the human spirit. “Liberal democracy is a good political system because it is based on the idea of universal recognition: that all citizens have equal rights that are respected. There is this fundamental equality in people’s ability to choose and exercise individual agencies. But once democracy gets established and you live in a society that has a high level of prosperity and stability, people start looking for other things. They become bored.”
That said, my conversation with Francis Fukuyama was anything but boring.
Plagues brought ancient Athens, Rome, Byzantium and even the Napoleonic empire closer to their demise. Would you say that the coronavirus pandemic could be a world-changing event of the same magnitude?
It really has the potential to be pretty big in terms of impact. I think the reason for this is because of globalization the world has become really interconnected. Because of this interconnection it has become very fragile. Disease can disrupt economic activity for 6 billion people basically, which is something that earlier plagues that were far more deadly could not do because they could not travel nearly as fast and economies were localized. So, I believe that it is going to have a big impact, but speculating about exactly what these impacts are is pretty difficult because usually when you are hit by a big crisis it really takes years and sometimes decades for the full consequences to play out. I think we are going to be surprised by what is down the road.
Some circles are spreading conspiracy theories centered on China as an explanation for the pandemic. Do you think such theories are being disseminated in order to increase US President Donald Trump’s chances of re-election in November?
I think that Trump’s chances of getting re-elected have been falling pretty steadily in the last few weeks. He had a bit of a bump initially, but I think his performance was so poor that he’s gone down in most of the polls. The other thing that happened is that the Democrats found a pretty good candidate, Joe Biden, early on and there is a lot of consensus that this is the right man for the job.
These are testing times for Europe, because a stronger sense of national identity is exactly what we don’t need right now if we want to fight the crisis. Can Europe avoid disintegration?
It is certainly possible. I think there would be some strains because the division between Northern and Southern Europe that appeared during the euro-crisis is back. And then in addition to the North-South divide you already had now you’ve opened up this East-West divide. Countries of Eastern Europe are moving in a different direction. I don’t think that this necessarily means that the EU will fall apart. It really depends on the sense of responsibility that countries like Germany in particular feel, but there is this mixed picture right now. I just think there are still enough people in Europe that understand that what is needed is greater cooperation. And this is the time for greater cooperation.
We are seeing a war between different identities and a lot of hate speech. Does this phenomenon remind you of the clashes between kinship groups described in your book “The Origins of Political Order”? Are we experiencing a war between modern kinships in the modern virtual internet world?
I think it is similar just in the following sense, that because of the rise of identity politics people organize themselves into smaller and smaller groups of people who are like-minded. And what that leads to is the weakening of the more integrating structures like nations, or like the EU that are necessary for large-scale collective action. One has to restore that larger sense of community because a world fragmented into small groups is not going to be able to deal with big emergencies like pandemics, financial crises or so forth.
Are you optimistic about the world and the US?
I think we are going to go through a very rough period for the next few years because I think the economic crisis is about to be prolonged and very difficult to get out of, and it would produce political consequences that are usually not good for democracy, so I am expecting some pretty bad developments over the next few months.
Just for a few months?
Well, I mean it’s pointless to speculate about the long-term future because there is such uncertainty.
You recently returned to the theme of thymos – discussed extensively in “The End of History” – in “Identity.” Is thymos the driving force governing the underlying process of history?
There is a division in the way social theories think about what drives history. The dominant approach today is the economic one. This is also the approach of Karl Marx, that people basically want to have material resources and then actions are guided by this desire to increase this material satisfaction. That is also what modern economists assume also. There is no question that’s important but there’s another source of human motivation, which is “thymos.” The concept appeared in Plato’s “Republic” and basically means that you long recognition for your dignity. If you don’t receive it, you get angry. It’s this desire to be recognized, to have one’s dignity affirmed by other human beings and a lot of times that desire comes at the expense of one’s material self-interest. So just to give you a concrete example, during the Brexit debate a lot of the people that voted to leave [the EU] were told this is going to be very bad for the British economy because we are so interconnected with Europe, we will have a big drop in income and so forth. Then the Brexit voters said, “I don’t care – we want to retain sovereignty and control over our country and if that requires economic sacrifice, we are willing to take it.” So you can see “thymos” at work. It is a different form of human motivation. It is not the only driver of history, economics still matters but I think that economists tend to forget about thymos and the fact that there is this other big source of human motivation that really is what drives a lot of our contemporary politics. It is the struggle for recognition.
Is Trump going to be the end history as we know it and the West as we know it?
Well, in “The End of History” I created a word, “megalothymia,” not in the sense of magnanimity that is the standard Greek notion, but as a way to express excess “thymos” or anger or more precisely to describe the desire to get recognized when it is greater than other people’s. In a democracy this desire for recognition is a very dangerous passion because it leads very ambitious people to seek to dominate their fellow citizens and so you need mechanisms that guarantee that kind of ambitious persons don’t upset the system. That’s why we have checks and balances in our constitution and so forth. I put Trump in “The End of History and the Last Man” as an example of such a person. The argument I made is that capitalism provides an outlet for very ambitious people like Trump to make billions of dollars, have fancy yachts and houses and that fortunately keeps them out of politics. But unfortunately that hasn’t always worked and 25 years later it was not enough for Donald Trump. And so he did decide to get into politics and now we are paying the price for that.
Do you think that social media provide the means to people to share the same truths, to invent their own facts and create their own distinct identities?
I think social media has an important role in that and the internet in general has led to this outcome. You know, for the internet when it was introduced back in 1990s everybody thought it was great because it was taking away all of the intermediaries, newspaper editors, or legacy media organizations, or governments. Anybody would be able to get access to information without having to go through these different trusted sources. It turns out it was not such a big thing because a lot of what those editors and fact checkers and traditional journalists did was to ensure a minimum level of quality of information people got. Now anyone puts everything they want on the internet and people do not have a way of evaluating how true it is and that is why we have this big rise of conspiracy theories and just crazy views that are out there. Now you have social media on top of that that allow people to segregate themselves to close communities. So, yes, I really think that social media does have this kind of impact.
What do you think of Greece’s reaction to the health crisis?
It is interesting that in general there were surprises in this crisis. Countries have either done a lot worse than you’d thought they would do or they have done a lot better and I think that Greece is a country that has done a lot better than people would have thought. If you asked back in January which European countries would be hit the worst Greece would come to mind. Well, that’s impressive. I also would mention the role of Prime Minister [Kyriakos] Mitsotakis. When I was in your country three years ago we had lunch together. He is actually a graduate of the master’s program at Stanford that I direct.