Despite the naive literalness of his notion of the end of history, I have remained loyal to Francis Fukuyama’s central point, which is a dogmatic version of Winston Churchill’s more appropriately paradoxical assertion that Western liberal democracy, as practiced most characteristically by Great Britain and the US, is “the worst of all systems, except for all the others.” **
I must admit that watching this system operate recently in the US has given me moments of doubt when thinking of China’s 7% growth rate and, as Bill Maher put it, its “seriousness” in contrast to the US. But in fact the 7% was a while ago; now Jack Ma has disappeared and Chinese citizens are despotically locked down, North Korea is as impoverished as ever, Iran is in revolt, and Russia n’en parlons pas. So I see no reason to doubt my affirmation that human life in Western democracies, with all its flaws, is on a whole different level of flourishing from that in these autocracies. Left to their own devices, the Western countries, whose culture supplied all the basic discoveries currently being exploited by Chinese industry, will almost certainly remain far more innovative in every area in the medium and long term.
And yet the real problem, the one at the core of the originary hypothesis, is not which system makes its participants happier or more productive by any criterion: health, longevity, industrial output, artistic and scientific creativity… but which system can maintain itself the longest given our propensity to mimetic conflict. The Fall of the Roman Empire should suffice to remind us that cultural superiority and survival are not synonymous.
Nor is the fact that Chinese prosperity is not what Xi would like us to think it is necessarily a factor in our favor in the short term. China’s demographic deficit, potential food shortages, and (no doubt) increasing discontent among its highly surveilled population are on the contrary reasons to fear that before it is too late China risks making an aggressive gesture that might lead to WWIII or even to Apocalypse ∞. We need only look at Russia, which can’t compete with us on any level save perhaps in some advanced military technologies, but which has not only the potential to destroy the human species but something like an incentive to play the game of chicken that might lead to it.
On this topic, in the October 17 Le Figaro, Senator Philippe Bas, Secretary General of Jacques Chirac’s cabinet in 2002-05, expresses fear that we are letting the Ukraine war get out of control with possibly uncontrollable results, and urges French President Macron, who has retained reasonably good relations with both sides and heads the only European country with a credible military, to begin overtures toward a truce and negotiated settlement.
Whether this would be acceptable to either side at the moment is dubious, but the point that Bas makes, or rather, implies, is nonetheless difficult to refute: Russia is the world’s one country that was designed for the game of chicken. Its vast spaces make conquering it almost unthinkable, and whether or not that is really the case is less important than the fact that its leaders believe it. Readers of War and Peace will recall Napoleon’s shock on reaching Moscow to find it burning; could he have imagined winning a war by burning down Paris?
Bill Maher’s point is well taken; even if the Chinese are rigid or, as one columnist put it, “autistic,” they are serious, whereas the let’s-go-Brandon Afghanistan-be-damned team with its get-out-of-jail-free-but-don’t-drill-for-oil policies is not. I didn’t have to read the Heritage Foundation Annual Index of U. S. Military Strength released October 18 to learn that our military is unprepared for a major conflict. The enemy’s most brilliant spy-master could not have thought up anything more effective than the current Wokeness policy to undermine what was a few decades ago the world’s undisputed finest fighting force.
Although Wokeness is a movement of youth, in many ways a revival of the 1960s New Left, the enormous difference between the two movements is that today’s “youth” is encouraged to act as the spiritual mentors of the older generation who are purportedly making “mature” decisions. As we have seen, even when management has balked at certain more extreme Woke developments, it has usually caved in to systematic resistance from younger employees, no longer finding a moral platform from which to resist them. On the contrary, our supposedly responsible elite is inhabited by the conviction that the moral truth found in this youthful Wokeness is one that older “white males” dare not ignore.
Although this was far from Fukuyama’s intention, the simplest way to understand this development in the Hegelian context in which liberal democracy’s victory in the Cold War can be called the “end of history” is to see the Woke movement as likewise representing the final stage of the epistemology of resentment, but one that no longer proposes a model of the “good society” that would fulfill Hegel’s expectations for “the end of history.” Instead, Wokeness functions as an internal critique of Western society that seeks to rid it of all signs of “inequity” and “systemic racism,” without suggesting or implying that this end can ever be accomplished. The Woke vision of the “good society” is a negative and tacitly unreachable utopia of Western civilization from which all inequities have been removed.
Indeed, Woke criticism never addresses structural issues directly; it is as though indifferent to the possibility that, if we followed its imperatives to the end, always choosing “equity” over objective qualifications, we might find that the social order would collapse—intimations of which are clearly present today, from the White House to the armed services to the elementary schools.
Which is to say that, although Wokeness may not be a “religion,” in contrast with Marxism and its derivatives, it sets what is in fact humanity’s originary moral intuition above any objective considerations, and in that sense may be said to depend on a revelation—one that, however, is manifested not as a positive vision of the future, but as an unwavering faith in resentment, actual and vicarious, as the detection mechanism for “inequity”—that is, evil.
It is in this sense that we can understand the Woke movement as the “end of history” of the epistemology of resentment, aka “the Left,” which has now abandoned any pretense of “building communism” or anything similar, relying instead entirely on an abstract moral intuition of perfect equality. In GA’s “new way of thinking,” this intuition can be defined quite simply as that of the originary event, which founds the human community through its successful resolution in the egalitarian distribution of nourishment as a demonstration of each individual’s equal share in the communal participation in the sacred.
The historical coincidence of Wokism with the originary hypothesis is in no way fortuitous. Each in their own way, Wokism and GA embody the originary revelation of human moral equality in the originary “equal feast.” The difference is that, dismissing the complications that have arisen in the course of humanity’s centimillenial existence, Wokism insists on this fundamental human reciprocity as the only genuine criterion of communal existence.
To understand it as an essentially immature attitude is not simply a condemnation; it is also an explanation of Wokism’s strange power, so different from that of the New Left which it superficially resembles. For in the 1960s, the administrations may have caved in to the activists, but with all the sympathy they could muster, and all their shared misgivings about the Vietnam war and its many casualties, they never really felt in political agreement with the protesters. Whereas today, there are no such protesters: on the contrary, the administration is conscience-driven to defend the activists against any conservative students or faculty who might have the audacity to complain about an antisemitic speaker or a segregated dormitory or a departmental vote in favor of BDS. What they recognize is that, whether naively or manipulatively, the Woke speak the language of originary morality, however unsuited it may be to modern society.
In short, both GA and Wokism as the final stage of the epistemology of resentment are founded on the same originary intuition of the egalitarian symmetry of originary human exchange, first of signs and then of worldly goods. Except that GA is not a political doctrine that asks us to put an end to history in order to return to a lost utopia of equity. We should nonetheless not make light of this parallel, nor of the explanation it offers of the apparent success of one implementation of this intuition and the tabooed status of the other.
Defining “injustice” as deviation from universal equality may have been the model of the originary human community, but human equality is not that of insects: from the first, the transcendence shared by the community is present in the pour-soi of every individual. To liberate these creatures from the dangers of their proto-human state is also to ensure that their intelligence will remain a constant source of différance: of reflection, of differentiation.
Only resentment can motivate the desire to reject all forms of superiority as modes of irrational ascriptive prejudice, with the result that the more such resentment becomes the basis of morality, the more new injustices will be discovered, to the point where the normal functioning of society becomes impossible. But in a democratic society, well before this point there will be a reaction, which forthcoming elections will reflect. The “end of history” of the Left is indeed the exhaustion of its dialectic, its reductio ad absurdum: having marched through the institutions, it has succeeded, or will in the near future, in alienating all persons of common sense.
But as we are theoreticians and not politicians, we should understand this development as the rectification of a misunderstanding, a return as it were to Burkean, historical wisdom: resentment as a motivation cannot be ignored, but it must be controlled. If its traditional religious controls have by now become insufficient, they are far from having disappeared. What lets life remain bearable is that one is constantly made aware that, even in today’s political climate, everyday casual relations are only superficially affected—although admittedly being retired makes it much easier for me to limit myself to such relations.
Whatever the fate of Wokeness, we cannot help witnessing its effect on the society, nor can we avoid reflecting on the persistence of the Left ideal even in the absence of any conception of “the good society.” This should motivate us to examine, on the one hand, the historical persistence of the notion of moral equality and the attempts to extend it beyond the point at which it subtends the social order, and on the other, the—largely religious—institutions that have throughout history kept the resentful extensions of this morality in check, institutions that, once more, I think we can say that the liberal-democratic system embodies in the worst way possible except for all the others.
Returning to Fukuyama, to the extent that the West has indeed won the battle to define the good society, so that its victory in the Cold War truly demonstrated that neither Western society itself nor any other can “lift up” (Aufheben) liberal democracy into some form of socialism, the current moment must be seen as one of reflux. In China, Xi’s recent totalitarian triumph suggests that, whatever its successes, Deng’s attempt to modify the socialist model by “Chinese characteristics” that combine that land’s tolerance for despotism learned over centuries of empire with an opening of its economy to market values appears to have proven itself incapable of the kind of supremacy that Westerners once feared and envied. Similarly, Wokeness is a dead end; it is fated to remain ever dissatisfied, arousing resentments that are more and more reflections of generalized frustration rather than, as the Woke pretend, deep moral indignation.
Assuming that we survive the current crisis, it is at the point when all this becomes a commonly accepted reality that the West will have to roll up its sleeves and start cleaning up its act, restoring norms and discouraging the promotion of deviant lifestyles, whose potential for excitement will fade in any case: how much of this stuff do we need?
I would imagine that traditional religions, even if their communal foundations have been weakened, will regain much of their prestige, although I also envisage that the unquestioned faith of past centuries will be replaced by a more pragmatic sense of faith’s human benefits. It is in this context that the originary hypothesis, and perhaps other similarly insightful “new ways of thinking,” would come into its own, allowing for a new sharpness in our definition of the human that can increasingly mesh with the hard-science discoveries of neurology/psychology as well as with the experimental world of artificial intelligence.
We should gear up and plan ahead toward these vistas rather than either basking in the eternal afternoon of Fukuyama’s “end of history” or bewailing it as the Spenglerian Untergang des Abendlandes. We might begin by starting to keep score at the kids’ T-Ball games. Hopefully this process will kick off in the US with the November elections and continue through 2024 and beyond.
**As I was working on this Chronicle, Matthew Taylor sent me a link to an article by Fukuyama himself, in The Atlantic: “More Proof That This Really Is the End of History” (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/10/francis-fukuyama-still-end-history/671761/ ). Fukuyama’s original idea of the “end of history” retains its power in contrast to the dystopian/utopian schemes for what amounts to non-dialectical despotism, but it still isn’t “the end of history.” We cannot help but admire Fukuyama’s Western self-confidence, which covers Christianity and its Hegelian Aufhebung, but as a true “dialectic of humanity,” that is, as a generative anthropology by means of which human history may be understood, it nonetheless falls short in ways that it would be a distraction to trace here.