A few years ago, a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama achieved instant fame with an article proposing that the demise of the Soviet Union signaled the end of history, or in Hegelian terms, the achievement of absolute self-consciousness. Having seen that the Socialist utopia is untenable, we realize that industrial capitalism, the marriage of a market economy and a democratic political system, is the ultimate social order. Recent history had been dominated by history’s final dialectical conflict; now only mopping-up operations remain. For the inhabitants of the ensuing posthistorical age, absent an extra-galactic threat or an errant asteroid, life will be pleasant but boring.
What is of value in Fukuyama’s argument can be better understood from the perspective of generative anthropology. The end of history as an anthropological category means the end of the human problematic, which is that of man as the animal whose primary danger comes from itself. What has indeed come to an end in our era is war as a maximal operation. The human world could not support a full-scale war with the weapons currently available without either disappearing altogether or regressing to an unthinkable level. This means, in originary terms, that we are once again a single community whose violence can destroy it, a global village. Hence there is real weight behind the idea that the end of war is the end of history, that once maximal violence can no longer be exercised, humanity has solved its fundamental problem.
But this is a solution of a very peculiar sort. The weapons of mass destruction still exist, and even if eliminated, could be recreated–to destroy the knowledge that allows us to construct them, one would have to destroy the civilization that creates this knowledge, a destruction that only the weapons themselves could carry out. Hence there can never be any absolute guarantee that World War III will not take place, or–a more likely prospect–thatdespots and terrorists will not acquire the means to destroy human civilization. Humanity must live on “forever” in the shadow of possible self-destruction, in the face of the unresolved but indefinitely deferred originary crisis. We may well call our awareness of this situation absolute anthropological self-consciousness, but it is quite unlike the Hegelian end of history in which Being succeeds in wholly realizing itself. Only GAcan really understand the inherent paradoxicality of the Hegelian ideal.
This having been said, the idea that we are at the end of history is more helpful in understanding our past than our future. The shadow of nuclear destruction puts a limit on our exercise of violence, but not on the number of degrees of freedom that human society continues to generate. To say that society has reached its final state in the democratic market system is like saying that humans reach a final state when they pass from childhood to adulthood. If this system is a permanent acquisition of human society, that only means that future social evolution will take it for granted, just as we take agriculture and monogamy for granted. The market is a minimal institution, in contrast with strong institutions founded on ritual centrality. And so is political democracy. The resiliency of these systems, whose survival seemed so precarious less than 60 years ago, comes from the fact that both are means of reaching social decisions with minimal coercion from central authority. Nor do the principles of either market exchange or democracy find definitive expression in any particular set of institutions. Just as the end of the Cold War has seen the weakening of coalitions set up to defend market democracy against communism, the next decades may well see vast changes in the structure of democracy itself.
Imagine if a Renaissance visionary like Leonardo were told that in the late 20th century humans would fly, transmit sound and images instantly around the globe, design machines on computers… How could such blessed beings (with life expectancies of over 70 years) not be happy? how could the history of human conflict not come to an end? But even the achievement of world-wide prosperity on an American or Japanese scale would not put an end to our propensity to mimetic conflict and resentment.
What has indeed ended in human history is the innocence that allowed us to take our separate communities as absolutes and to use all means in our power to destroy our adversaries. As I pointed out in The End of Culture, the battlefield is really the first marketplace, the first situation where value / valor (the French word valeur means both) is established by results independently of ritual constraints. With the demise of this means of testing their relative strength, competition among societies must henceforth be limited to non-violent venues. This limitation has so far provoked both a global movement of religious and cultural ecumenism and local movements of religious and cultural terrorism. The outcome of this tension will remain no doubt forever undecidable.
But one thing that generative anthropology teaches us is that war is not an originary institution. The origin of the human is not the concentration or the externalization of violence, but its deferral. Now, at the end of history, we are able to understand that the human has from the start deferred its potentially self-destructive violence through the exchange of signs and the consequent exchangeability of things.