"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Thursday, December 01, 2005
History has not yet begun
Liberalism and socialism belonged to the Stone Age of ideologies. Now we are ready to crawl out of the caves.

by Frank Furedi

Is this really the end of history? A growing consensus suggests that we are at the end of something.

There is a profound sense of terminus about the age of modernity. Many thinkers who are not self-consciously post-modernist nevertheless subscribe to the thesis that we have reached the end of the modern era. American historian John Lukacs declares 'It's the End of the Modern Age', and claims that we are witnessing, not fin de siecle, but fin d'une ere (1).

Contemporary thinkers rarely question Lukacs' pessimistic account of the decline of the modern age. Even proponents of modernism and the Enlightenment find it difficult to promote a robust view of the world that is embedded in the values of reason and progress. The best case scenario that Morris Berman's The Twilight of American Culture is able to posit is one where 'we do have a renaissance, a preservation and transmission of Enlightenment culture, but only for a select few, and their impact on the rest of the culture is apparently nonexistent' (2).

Even though Berman discounts the possibility that the Enlightenment could capture the popular imagination, at least he acknowledges the value of this tradition. By contrast, a significant section of the Western intelligentsia sneeringly denounces the 'Enlightenment project', and celebrates its demise. From this perspective, the events of 11 September are the inevitable consequence of the destructive forces unleashed by globalisation and modernity.

It is striking how feeble today's affirmation of modernity is. A profound sense of cultural disorientation continually invites pessimistic conclusions. That is why the terrible events of 11 September have been endowed with such epochal significance. The destruction of the World Trade Centre is often interpreted as an attack on modernity; and judging by the weak intellectual response to this attack the terrorists seem to be bombing their way through an open door.

Politicians and opinion-formers are desperate to quell any discussion about a clash of civilisations. Any suggestion that Islam might in some sense be implicated in inspiring the destruction of this symbol of modernity is swiftly dismissed as xenophobic. Some Western cultural commentators imagine that the act was provoked by the regime of conspicuous consumption symbolised by the Twin Towers. And those who imply that 'America had it coming' really mean that this act of destruction is the penalty exacted for the arrogant presumptions of modernity.

Fukuyama's obituary is not so much about history as about historical thinking

Compared to the profoundly pessimistic and anti-rationalist intellectual currents of our times, Francis Fukuyama's thesis on 'The End of History' comes across as positively forward looking. Fukuyama at least recognises that the present stage of human development represents an advance over previous ones.

In line with the pessimistic temper of our times, Fukuyama's vision of the future is a bleak one, in which human beings struggle 'for the sake of struggle' out of a 'certain boredom' (3). But although Fukuyama discounts the enterprise of making history in the future, he clearly recognises the important achievements realised through the development of human civilisation.

Much of the critical reaction to Fukuyama's 'end of history' thesis missed the central point of his argument. Fukuyama did not seek to imply that history had literally ended and that nothing new would ever happen again. Rather, as he explained, he used the term 'history' in the specific Hegelian sense, to mean the 'history of ideology' or the 'history of thought about first principles'.

This version of the end-of-ideology thesis does not exclude change. But it does exclude the further evolution of human consciousness, and the development of a new and superior vision of how society should be run. History has ended in the sense that there appear to be no ideas that can credibly offer to take humanity beyond the status quo.

Fukuyama's obituary is not so much about history as about historical thinking. Historical thinking is a form of consciousness oriented towards altering the human condition. It regards all social arrangements as transient, and therefore susceptible to further improvement through the making of history.

During the past three centuries, historical thinking directly encouraged the construction of political alternatives to the status quo. The claim that such alternatives have become irrevocably exhausted constitutes the core of the 'end of history' thesis.

Even the aspiration to know becomes associated with destructive outcomes

Historical thinking represents one of the greatest achievements of the Enlightenment tradition. It recognises and affirms the transformative dynamic of human action, especially in its future-oriented and culturally purposeful form. The early eighteenth-century thinker Giambattista Vico was one of the first to grasp the responsibility of human beings for the making of history:

'In the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never-failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by man, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our human mind' (4).

The sense of history-making as a defining feature of the human condition led Vico and others to endow this activity with an essentially positive character.

With the emergence of historical thinking, the sense of change became theorised for the first time. Change itself became an issue, the premier intellectual problem of the time. This sense of change was closely linked to the recognition that human subjectivity was not external to, but part of, history. A new sense of temporality gave human consciousness a decisive role in the shaping of history.

Such sentiments directly contradict the temper of our times. Today, terms like naive, arrogant and pernicious are used to dismiss Vico's view of how history is made. In particular, the role of reason and human consciousness is assigned a marginal role in history-making.

The attempt to act in accordance with a system of ideas is invariably denounced as ideological, fanatical, utopian or millenarian. Critics of historical thinking share the premise that human beings have little control over their actions and still less over the outcome.

Society is only now learning about how the world really works

In the past, critics of reason took a particular delight in stressing the impotence of human agency. The liberal critic Friedrich Hayek insisted that men and women were always the objects, but never the subjects, of history. 'Man is not and never will be the master of his fate: his very reason progresses by leading him into the unknown and unforeseen where he learns new things.' (5)

Despite his pessimistic account of human agency, Hayek still offers a positive view, in which humanity progresses and learns albeit in unforeseen and unexpected circumstances. Contemporary critics of reason and progress go much further, and even stigmatise the humanist aspiration for expanding the frontier of knowledge.

Proponents of the thesis that we live in a society dominated by risk claim that, in our complex industrial world, it is impossible to know the consequences of scientific and technological innovation. Some argue that since the consequences of technological innovation are realised so swiftly, there is simply no time to know or understand their likely effects (6). According to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the absence of time required to obtain necessary information weakens hope in rationality (7).

This negative interpretation of society's ability to understand the consequences of its actions assigns a rather minor and undistinguished role to human agency. Indeed, theories of risk society represent humanity as too powerless to repair the damage it has caused in the past, and too ignorant to shape the future. From this perspective, even the aspiration to know becomes associated with destructive outcomes. Historical thinking itself becomes a risk.

The estrangement of contemporary Western culture from the Enlightenment tradition in general, and specifically from historical thinking, appears to vindicate the 'end of history' thesis. Fukuyama's thesis contains one important insight: he has accurately identified the weak state of historical thinking in the contemporary era. In contrast to previous times, there appear to be no intellectual alternatives to capitalism and liberal democracy. There are no big ideas. And all the dissident ideas - anti-globalism, environmentalism, and so on - lack both an orientation towards the future and any plausible arguments about how to transcend the status quo.

Critics of mainstream politics are even more suspicious of the role of human consciousness than are the elites. This approach is most striking among movements for cultural recognition, where consciousness is abolished and replaced by the politics of identity. Fixed identities rooted in the past represent the antithesis of historical thinking.

Attempts to revise past insights turned the critique of capitalism into a caricature

So are we to conclude that history has ended? The idea that historical thinking has reached its limits cannot logically be deduced from the empirical reality of the present day. It is simply a generalisation from the empirical recognition that, at present, there is no ideological alternative to liberal capitalism. But the present is but a moment in terms of the historical process. Indeed, from the experience of the past three centuries, it is possible to draw the conclusion that history has just begun.

It is unlikely that the ideological battles of the past three centuries have exhausted the intellectual imagination of humanity, for at least two reasons.

The big ideas associated with the advocacy of liberal capitalism have always played a secondary role within the wider political culture. The best argument for capitalism was always the claim that it delivered and provided a measure of economic prosperity. During times of recession and depression, intellectual supporters of this system invariably went on the defensive and were always prepared to take pragmatic turns. At one time or another, proponents of liberal capitalism were more than happy to live with state socialism, the mixed economy, New Deals and the Welfare State.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the best argument for capitalism was the negative example of the Soviet Union. Consequently, the ideology of capitalism has remained under-theorised, and rarely elaborated into an inspiring alternative. Indeed the contributions made by more systematic libertarians have tended to remain on the margins of political discussion. Characteristically, the Western intelligentsia has distanced itself from free-market ideas - indeed, it has often been drawn towards cultural criticisms of capitalism.

The under-theorised character of capitalist ideology has rendered it a weak instrument for influencing culture. The pessimistic cultural mood of our times - which is even more striking post-11 September- indicates that this outlook lacks the resilience to survive in its present form. Even if capitalist thinking faces no alternatives, it faces the prospect of internal implosion. The growing trend towards promiscuous relativism is symptomatic of the fact that classical liberalism lacks the resources to engage with contemporary experience.

If classical capitalist ideology is under-theorised, its alternatives have become so over-intellectualised as to be too inflexible to yield to new experience. For most of those on the left, history ended a long time before Fukuyama signed its obituary. The left succeeded in turning the valuable insights of nineteenth-century radical thinkers into a dogma that represented the last word on the human condition.

History does not issue any guarantees

At every turn, attempts to revise the insights of the past turned the critique of capitalism into a caricature. By the time the Cold War ended, this critique had become a simplistic worship of the state. The very fact that it was able to influence significant sections of Western society was based on the intellectual defensiveness and weakness of the liberal alternative. The demise of the early ideologies of liberalism and socialism does not constitute a refutation of historical thinking. These were early innovations that were carried out at a time when the exercise of human subjectivity faced significant obstacles. Society is only now learning about how the world really works.

Despite Western culture's profound sense of disappointment with the human subject, individuals possess an unprecedented potential for influencing the way they live their lives. It is only now that the promise of choice and control has acquired meaning for a significant section of the public. Autonomy and self-determination are still little more than ideals that can inspire. But we have moved away from the Stone Age of ideologies to a time where the transformative potential of people has acquired a remarkable force.

We have also learnt that history does not issue any guarantees. Purposeful change is indeed a risky enterprise. But whether we like it or not, the taking of risks in order to transform our lives and to transform ourselves is one of our most distinct human qualities. The making of history, too, is one of those transformative experiments that helps us to realise and define our humanity.

By definition, experiments yield uncertain results. It is because of the disappointments of the past that we feel so uncomfortable with uncertainty, and are so ready to declare the end of history. Crawling out of the cave is no easy task. And for some time, the intimation that real history is just about to begin is likely to inspire dread rather than enthusiasm.

But events like 11 September indicate that we cannot take time out indefinitely. In the end, purposeful human intervention and experimentation is the only realistic option. Taking such risks is an obligation that our nature as humans imposes on us.

posted by R J Noriega at 3:12 PM | Permalink |


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