Tragedy, Farce and Fukuyama: How Socialism Lives On

In the introduction to The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, he summarizes the themes and impact of his 1989 article of the same name.[1] He writes that history may have come to an end in the sense that, whilst events in themselves (of which he cites the Berlin Wall falling, Tiananmen Square and the invasion of Kuwait) continue to occur, History in the Hegelian sense has come to a grinding halt. In the Hegelian context, Fukuyama understands history as being the “ideological evolution” of forms of human governance, and the global consensus that is arising with regard to it. Marx, too, perceived a direction to History, only Fukuyama argues that Marx simply got the ending point wrong. It is capitalism (which Fukuyama refers to as liberal democracy), which has conquered feudalism, hereditary monarchy, fascism “and most recently, communism”. Injustice where it remains, he argues, is a result of “incomplete implementation of the twin principles of liberty and equality”.[2]

These principles have thus been applied to the economic sphere, resulting in free market economies, which “have succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity” globally. Most illuminating of all, he writes that it is noteworthy that the most developed free market countries are also the most successful democracies, for “there is no economically necessary reason why advanced industrialization should produce political liberty.” Fukuyama rests this premise on what he calls ‘modern natural science’, in that ultimately it is scientific progress that allows for military might and the satisfaction of human desires (the ambition of any society).[3]

This broad and deep set of claims opens itself to criticism from various avenues of assault. I will use critiques from Christopher Hitchens and Slavoj Žižek on the premises of Fukuyama’s argument, and a new argument from Sam Harris regarding what promotes human wellbeing, with regard to his conclusion. Given the extraordinary events playing out in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, recent political events will also be put to the Fukuyaman thesis.

Christopher Hitchens in a talk at Georgetown University, Washington DC in 1992[4] argued that not only is Fukuyama wrong about liberalism, he is wrong about socialism, and indeed, that the socialist critiques of society are as relevant and piercing as ever. He notes that Fukuyama asks us to consider the world as a global economy, when he writes of a “global capitalist system”, or the “world economy” of which Europe and America are said to have structured in their favour.[5] Hitchens argues that whilst this is in one way a revolutionary idea, that we must ask ourselves, firstly, if this global economy is truly run along Fukuyama’s ideals of liberalism and pluralism, and secondly, if there is exploitation within the world-wide system itself.

Hitchens points out the control that western powers had over 1992 Iraq and its capacity to do as it liked with its primary export. He argues that the wider population of Iraq was at the mercy of the west, “it was entirely up to the first world to decide when precisely it was that they could sell their primary product… which made them a monoculture economy, which is the curse of the third world, as in a country that has only one resource to sell and can play very little role in the fixing of its price.” Noting that there was little reason to doubt the stories about “the sinister Ba’ath party” he argues that for the people of Iraq, it meant that external forces would control their economy, and “how many meals a day they could eat”. Other examples include Cuba’s export of sugar, and Haiti’s export of people. Of this, he argues that the result is that there is in the U.S., “a large third-world population living within the first world boundaries, and within the frontiers of Haiti, a large first world elite which disposes of the national product as if it were its private property.”

This, then, looks apt for accusations of a very Marxist flavour, namely of alienation and exploitation. However, this is no longer occurring at the level of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, (for these distinctions have somewhat collapsed with the rise of the middle class). Now, it seems, the class conflict occurs at the level of the nation state, with First World countries assuming the role of the bourgeoisie, and the Third World countries that of the proletariat.

Hitchens argues that Fukuyama is presenting something like a New World Order thesis (of which less witty critics, he notes, label merely as an Old World Order). It is worth asking whether this is, indeed, a higher synthesis of an old idea, or merely a new alibi for an old imperialism. It appears, given the present deepening inequality of wealth, that the latter of these two interpretations is true. It is a cliché to talk about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, but it appears that it is grounded in truth. I note that an April 12 2011 report showed that the wealth of the richest 400 Americans has quadrupled since 1995, and that simultaneously the tax on their incomes has been halved.[6]

Hitchens argues that Fukuyama perceives liberalism as free from contradictions, and thus qualifies for a Hegelian ‘end of history’, a claim that will itself be explored. Hitchens notes that, in Fukuyama’s view, the notion of linear, inevitable development is assumed throughout. And it is true that Fukuyama believes that if a society’s evolution is circular, that it would be possible for it to make the same mistakes again and again, “slavery may reoccur, Europeans may crown themselves princes and emperors, and American women can lose the right to vote.”[7] Hitchens argues that Fukuyama should not forget another Hegelian sound-bite, and quotes, “History repeats itself, sometimes as tragedy, sometimes as farce.” He argues that, “The conditions of 19th century mercantile capitalism are being reproduced, with their contradictions.”[8]

There seems to be evidence for this depressing notion in Slavoj Žižek’s Hegelian work. He writes that, “In “post­modern” capitalism, the market has invaded new spheres which were hitherto considered the privileged domain of the state, from education to prisons and law and order.”[9] Žižek is amongst various commentators who have noticed that America appears to have indeed re-invented the slave trade. Reports from the Pew Center note that the U.S. has 25% of the world’s total prison population, whilst being home to 5% of the world’s population.[10] Charlene Muhammed notes that, “Inmates produce items or perform services for almost every major industry. They sew clothes, fight fires and build furniture, but they are paid little or no wages, somewhere between five cents and almost $2.”[11] And this in the bastion of liberalism that Fukuyama would see be the measuring stick of progress. It can be said, then, that Fukuyama is precisely wrong in saying that slavery could not return – because it has – only in an evolved, 21st century guise. Similar sentiments of “history repeating itself” can be expressed on other matters. Just as the U.S. government under Johnson lied to enter Vietnam, as shown by the Pentagon Papers[12], they similarly lied under Bush to enter Iraq, as shown by the “sexed up” Iraq Dossier.[13] Or, for example, the recent case of two Muslim men being evicted from a flight by the airline because “passengers felt uncomfortable with their presence”.[14] The case is tragic, because it is reminiscent of the prejudice shown to Rosa Parks, and farcical because the two men were university professors on their way to a conference on Islamophobia. Clearly history does repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, precisely as Fukuyama holds it will and can not.

Hitchens argues that Fukuyama is like a modern-day Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide: the idealist, declaring that this world is the greatest there could, in principle, be. What Fukuyama calls the ‘twin’ ideals of equality and liberty are, however, in tension. Similarly, this tension also exists between democracy and the free-market. Indeed, Žižek quotes Naomi Klein’s thesis of the ‘shock doctrine’, which argues that “Some of the most infamous human rights violations of the past thirty five years, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market reforms.”[15] It requires an extraordinary vacuum in one’s facility of imagination to think that this is the best that we can expect from humanity.

It is illuminating to read Fukuyama mourning the death of the theory of modernization that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s, when he reminisces that “[industrial nations] worked, with great enthusiasm, to harness their new social science to the task of helping the newly independent countries of the Third World develop economically and politically.”[16] Žižek writes that the invasion of Iraq was a case of the ‘shock doctrine’, whereby the trauma of invasion is jarring to old norms and values, making an enforced transition to a market economy more likely to stick. One wonders if the ‘shock and awe’ campaign was an instance of, as Fukuyama says, helping the Third World develop economically and politically.

The spark for this invasion, the tragic events of September 11th 2001, has been argued by many commentators to have signalled the falsity of the eutopian Fukuyaman thesis, prompting many to abandon it in favour of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis.[17] This, however, I believe to be an unfair criticism, premised on a misreading of Fukuyama’s notion of history. Fukuyama never takes the End of History to be a time when events, even colossal ones, do not occur. Rather, he prefers to speak of history as an on-going evolutionary process that is singular and directional, and that has ultimately culminated in the persevering form of liberal democracy that has spread throughout the world. For him, then, 9/11 poses no significant threat to his thesis, for it has done nothing to topple capitalism. It has, however, shown that the world is far from consensus. As Žižek writes, “It thus seems that Fukuyama’s utopia of the 1990s had to die twice, since the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia on 9/11 did not affect the economic utopia of global market capitalism; if the 2008 financial meltdown has a historical meaning then, it is as a sign of the end of the economic face of Fukuyama’s dream.”[18]

The economic collapse and subsequent bailout of 2008-2011 does seem to tar Fukuyama’s claim that we are in a system that is sustainable and free of internal contradiction. Former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Roger Altman claimed that, “The financial and economic crash of 2008, the worst in over 75 years, is a major geopolitical setback for the United States and Europe”, and that the “damage has put the American model of free-market capitalism under a cloud.”[19] Lynn Walsh notes that, “The United Nations (World Economic Situation and Prospects 2009) estimates that governments worldwide have used around $18 trillion (or about 30% of world gross product) to bail out the banks and support the financial system.”[20] Fukuyama begins to look much like Pangloss, who, infected with syphilis and missing an ear and an eye stubbornly maintains that the world could be no better.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities collated data on the average loss or gains of American families from 2001-2007[21] which Chuck Marr of the CBPP commented as showing that, “Fully two-thirds of the income gains in the last economic expansion (2001-2007) flowed to just the top 1 percent.”[22] The economic bailout, then, accelerated this dynamic, even though those responsible for the crisis, the politicians, economists and bankers, were in the wealthy 1% already. A Federal Reserve survey of 4,000 households between 2007-2009 showed that the median family wealth has dropped from $125,000 in 2007 to $96,000 in 2009, down 23.2%. Meanwhile, the median income for the top 10% of earners dropped only 13%.[23]  That is, the people who were wealthiest before the crash, the same people who caused the crash, were those who benefited most (or suffered least) from it. Though the recession is largely reported to be over, that did not mean that the bail-out was without risks. And it was not the wealthy banker who was risking anything, but the ordinary citizen. CNN summarised the UK situation in October 2008, “The nightmare scenario would be that the package fails to see confidence return and that money markets remain frozen. If shares prices continue to slide the taxpayer loses out.”[24] This does confirm Fukuyama’s positing of the world as a global economy, to be sure. However, when the wealthiest people on Earth make a series of huge economic mistakes that involves the poorest getting poorer, whilst they themselves gain a more secure position, it appears Fukuyama is a prophet of dys- rather than eu-topia.

However, this fact does not seem to be deterring the world from pursuing liberal-democratic ideals, indeed, the extraordinary events in the Middle East and North Africa could arguably be said to be in the name of the Fukuyaman vision, though this is not without controversy. Some reports argued that the Tunisian, Egyptian, Algerian And Yemeni uprisings were driven by a child of socialism; the labor movement. Juan Cole reports that Egypt was hard-hit by the economic collapse of 2008, making life increasingly difficult for state-employed workers, and whose attempts to strike were suppressed through threats and police intimidation.[25] With a fifth of Egyptians below the poverty line, inflation rates of 25% and unemployment of 25% amongst 15-25 year olds, it is little wonder that youth and labor activists became hostile towards the government. Under the name of the “April 6 Committee”, these activists, “were among the major forces calling for the big demonstration on Jan. 25 at Tahrir Square that brought down the Egyptian Cabinet and placed a question mark over the government’s future.”[26]

Similarly in Tunisia; declining living standards, unemployment of a fifth, lack of democratic rights and the catalyst of Mohamad Bouazizi’s furious self-immolation sparked a revolution led by the labor movement. Extraordinary levels of inequality, too, fed into the revolutionary spirit. Writes Cole, “While ordinary workers and even college graduates in Tunisia were often barely making ends meet, a small clique at the top was making out like pirates. The U.S. embassy in Tunis estimated in 2008 that half the wealthy people in the country were related to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or to his wife, Leila Trabelsi Ben Ali.” But whilst these revolutions seem to have all the characteristics that one might expect to spark a socialist revolution – oppression, alienation, a vast disparity between rich and poor, a united proletarian, class consciousness – it appears to have been, in actuality, a capitalist revolution. The rights demanded by the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia were liberal-democratic in nature, “first among them the right to work and liberty.”[27] Bouazizi’s heroic act of self-sacrifice was committed, after all, because he was barred from selling his wares and had had his goods confiscated by the police. Fukuyama can fit these events snugly into his doctrine of the eventual victory of capitalism and democracy. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, the demand for economic freedoms and democratic power were the motivating factors. And indeed, now that Ben Ali and Mubarak have been ousted, the revolutionary fervour seems to have subsided.

After his radical departure from America’s ‘intellectual’ left after 9/11, Hitchens wrote that capitalism had begun to become a force far more revolutionary than socialism. Interviewed by Rhys Southan, Hitchens said, “There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism — certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement.”[28] A more succinct description of the Fukuyaman doctrine would be difficult to express. He continues that, “Marx’s original insight about capitalism was that it was the most revolutionary and creative force ever to appear in human history. And though it brought with it enormous attendant dangers, [the revolutionary nature] was the first thing to recognize about it. That is actually what the Manifesto is all about.”

Žižek, emphasises that it is the communist struggle that has been one of the shaping forces of modern liberal democracy, citing trade unions, universal voting rights, state education and freedom of the press as having been historically wrestled from the powerful and the wealthy. He writes, “Recall the list of demands with which The Communist Manifesto concludes: most of them, with the exception of the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, are today widely accepted in “bourgeois” democracies, but only as the result of popular struggles.”[29] It is in this that I am in complete agreement, and why I am convinced that, even if communism and socialism are, as Hayek suspects, tragedies, and that it is inevitable that “in our endeavour to consciously shape the future in accordance with high ideals, we [will] in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for”[30], that we should be socialists, even if we never will (or never should) have socialism.[31] Though Žižek is right, and that social democracy has indeed made many great advances, so too, is Hitchens. Today, socialism does not appear to present any credible alternative to liberal democracy. This brings us to a crucial point, then: socialists are necessary to reform capitalism, even if socialism itself is unviable.

But this does not necessitate that capitalism has ended history. Hitchens, speaking in 1992, points out that Fukuyama is feeble with regard to the Middle East. Fukuyama argues that the threat posed by modern Islamism is a result of damage done to its dignity, due to “its double failure to maintain the coherence of its traditional society and to successfully assimilate the techniques and values of the West.”[32] Hitchens argues that, of all the places in the world that the liberal-democratic ideal could take hold, it is the Middle East that has had the most influence from Western nations. Citing the historic influences of Britain, France, Denmark and the U.S. on the shaping of the political and economic progress the region, he quips, “In the one place where it really ought to be working, where there is no evident rival, it not only doesn’t work – it is held not to apply.”[33]

However, Fukuyama can once again assimilate this problem by maintaining that the “Arab spring” poses no significant threat to his thesis. Jonathan Spyer writes in agreement, and holds that Islamism in its present, politicised form is the result of the feelings amongst Iran’s leaders that the optimism of the Islamic revolution is subsiding, and that they are throwing their weight around to save face.[34] He argues that the events of early 2011 have done nothing to move the world any closer to the Iranian ideal, and, on the contrary, may have served to weaken Iran and the Islamist movement. Fukuyama holds that Islamism poses no threat simply because it holds no appeal to non-Muslims. Spyer, however, is much more damning on the issue, “It is possible, and even likely, that the kinds of issues raised by the Arab uprisings will be central in the eventual defeat of the Iranian-led regional alliance. This is because on the crucial matters of societal development – the creation of working and representative institutions of government, providing jobs and opportunities and channeling the creative energies of a generation of young people in the Middle East – Iran and its allies have absolutely nothing to say.”[35]

So Fukuyama might be right: if capitalism through modern natural science really is the thing that best satisfies our desires, and creates the most happiness, if socialism really cannot displace it, if Islamism is merely dark-age thinking in its death-throes, should we conclude that history is over? Not only do I maintain that this would require an extraordinary lack of imagination, but that Fukuyama’s reliance on human wellbeing as the justification for the triumph of capitalism means that socialism could return.

Fukuyama considers a critique first laid down by Rousseau, that consumerism creates an unquenchable thirst for things called amour-propre, writing, “Modern economies, for all of their enormous efficiency and innovation, create a new need for every want they satisfy. Men are made unhappy not because they fail to gratify some fixed set of desires, but by the gap that continually arises between new wants and their fulfilment.”[36] Fukuyama rejects, however, that a “return to nature” will make us happy, based on the economic collapse that would ensue, and our return to “third world” standards of living.

A new argument from author Sam Harris, however, uses the very concept of modern natural science to focus on the concept of human well-being in a manner that could not only prove Fukuyama wrong, but resurrect socialism. Harris argues that science can and should be used to discover how humans can best live, and that facts about human wellbeing relate to discoverable facts about human brain states.[37] If it is the case that humans will flourish better in socialist societies; if it is the case that a socialist world would be a better one, then modern natural science will have led us to socialism, and Fukuyama’s thesis will come crumbling down.

Harris writes that our knowledge of neuroscience is growing constantly and that, as a science of human wellbeing develops, our understanding will “force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.”[38] In this respect, it is human morality in relation to the wellbeing of conscious creatures that can show us which societies are best run in terms of institutions, organisation and government.

For example, Harris writes that the concept of ‘fairness’ is not merely in ideological talking-point, but it is a felt experience. When we experience justice, or fairness, neuro-imaging of the brain displays reward-related activity, whilst injustice or unfairness creates real emotional pain responses.[39] Thus, acting in a way that promotes justice and fairness is something that largely contributes to human wellbeing. Harris concludes that, “It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often be superseded by considerations of fairness”, and that thereby, everyone will be better off under a fairer system.[40] But this is not merely conjecture, and indeed The Equality Trust has a vast range of evidence to suggest that people in more equal societies: have better physical and mental health, are higher educated, have fewer people in prison, have less obesity, enjoy greater social mobility, are more trusting of one another, are less violent, have fewer teenage births and have greater child well-being.[41]

But Sam Harris’ argument not only makes it possible to talk about the factual societal benefits of altruism, but his consequentialist ethical outlook can provide an extraordinary critique of capitalism in its most benign present form. Consequentialist ethics, broadly, involve maximizing the best outcomes of every action, and Harris argues that this best outcome is measured with regard to human (all humans) wellbeing as examined by brain science. Accordingly, capitalism could be described as having unbearable and indefensible consequences on the wellbeing of the majority. A report by the World Institute for Development Economics Research reports that the wealthiest 1% of households owns 40% of the world’s wealth, whilst the poorest 50% owns less than 1% of global wealth.[42] The report states that,“Wealth is heavily concentrated in North America, Europe and high-income Asia Pacific countries. People in these countries collectively hold almost 90 per cent of total world wealth”.[43] As a result, it is the case that our high standard of living comes at the cost of exceptionally poor standards of living amongst vast swathes of humanity.

If Fukuyama wishes to proclaim capitalism as the End of History because it, through modern natural science, is that which best contributes to human wellbeing, his vision must be as limited as his imagination. Sam Harris’ argument means that, for the first time, modern natural science is able to contribute to political discussions in a normative manner and, ironically, seems to be undermining Fukuyama with every new discovery. Modern natural science seems increasingly likely to advise the application of altruistic socialist policies, and away from self-interested free-market ones.

In summary, then, Hitchens has shown that the Marxist critiques of alienation and exploitation are more relevant as ever, elevated as they are to a global scale. History does not appear to be linear, and we can track a circularity of events, with historic injustices being revisited in a modern guise. Any ‘end’ to history would be free of contradiction but the financial crisis shows the self-destructive nature of unleashed self-interest and greed. Further, the ‘liberal’ side to Fukuyama’s thesis is in direct conflict with the ‘democratic’ side, as historically democracies have been squashed to further capitalist ends. The triumphs that created the middle class, argues Žižek, are due to socialist-motivated victories. But Hitchens eventually concedes that presently, socialism provides no alternative to capitalism, and Fukuyama seems vindicated. But his reliance on modern natural science, and his insistence that liberal democracies best promote human wellbeing allow Harris’ new ethical neuroscience to factually undermine him. Not only is human wellbeing damaged by capitalism on the large scale through global inequality, but even by average citizens in first world countries. Our high standard of living is now a cause of suffering by proxy, and it is Fukuyama’s idyllic liberal democracy that fuels it. As neuroscience advances and a science of the human condition develops, it seems increasingly the case that socialism will return, and that human progress, or History, will continue.


[1] Fukuyama, F., 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin Books, p. xi

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hitchens, C., 1992, History Is Not Over, purchasable from Alternative Radio at or viewable in parts at [Accessed 21 April 2011]

[5] The End of History and the Last Man, p. 42

[6] REPORT: In 12 Years, Income For Richest 400 Americans Quadruples, Tax Rate Nearly Halved, available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[7] The End of History and the Last Man

[8] History is Not Over, available at [Accessed 21 April 2011]

[9] Zizek, S., 2009, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Verso Publishing, p. 144

[10] Prison Count 2010 available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[11] America’s New Slavery: Black Men in Prison, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[12] The Pentagon Papers, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[13] Iraq Dossier, The Sexing-up, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[14] Muslim group: two imams pulled from plane bound for North Carolina, available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[15] Klein, N., 2007, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Penguin Books, p. iii

[16] The End of History and the Last Man, p. 69

[17] Although it is not within the remit of this essay, I am largely convinced that Fukuyama can assimilate Huntington’s theory into his own. The civilizations may be ‘clashing’, but it is a one-way battle that will ultimately end in the victory of the west. For Fukuyama, then, History is still over, Islamism just hasn’t realized it yet.

Fukuyama outlines something like this idea at

[18] First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 5

[19] Altman, R., The Great Crash, 2008, available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[20] Walsh, L., 2009, Where is the world economy going?, available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[21] The Great Income Shift, available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[22] Enough Is Enough on Tax Cuts for Wealthy, available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[23] Surveying the Aftermath of the Storm: Changes in Family Finances from 2007 to 2009 available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[24] Q&A: How will the UK bailout work? available at [accessed 21 April 2011]

[25] Labor movement drives Egypt, Tunisia protests, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[26] Ibid.

[27] Tunisia: the protests continue, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[28] Free Radical, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[29] First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 38

[30] Hayek, F., 1994 , The Road to Surfdom, p. 5, University of Chicago Press

[31] I have argued this point at greater length in another essay, entitled Socialism is a Moral Obligation

[32] The End of History and the Last Man, p. 237

[33] History Is Not Over, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[34] Spyer, J., 2010, The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, Continuum Publishing

[35] Spyer, J., 2011, The Iranian Sword and the ‘Peninsula Shield’, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

“>[36] The End of History and the Last Man, p. 83

[37] Harris, S., 2011, The Moral Landscape, Bantam Press

[38] The Moral Landscape, p.2-3

[39] Harris cites Tabibnia, Satpute and Lieberman, 2008.

[40] The Moral Landscape, p.80

[41] The Equality Trust, The Evidence in Detail, available at: [accessed 21 April 2011]

[42] Davies, J., Sandstrom, S., Shorrocks, A., Wolff, E., 2006, The World Distribution of Household Wealth, World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University

[43] Ibid.