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The End of the Future

After the nostalgic theatrics at the American Super Bowl, it’s clear why Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis hits home.

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Politics

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Francis Fukuyama is the man famous for the ‘End of History’ thesis. In 1989 he presented it in a public lecture at the University of Chicago: History had ended with liberal democratic modernity. Sixteen years to the day, he gave a follow up talk in the same lecture hall entitled ‘The End of History Fifteen Years Later’ [sic].

In itself, Fukuyama’s theory is of limited interest. In the 1989 version he claimed that History is (or was) driven by scientific progress, since science determines the array of technological possibilities in an economy. In turn, the economy ‘weakly’ determines politics – there is a strong correlation between economic development and political development towards liberal democracy. Once the whole world is fully developed, History will end: no two liberal democracies have ever gone to war, for instance.

The main problem here is obvious. For History to end, whatever was once driving it has to have stopped. On Fukuyama’s original account, the motor of History is technology – but technology hasn’t stopped and doesn’t look like stopping. Strangely, Fukuyma himself doesn’t seem to recognise this problem. Instead his revised thesis retains the same argument and then adds the qualification that ‘politics is autonomous’ – which is plainly inconsistent with the original thesis.

Fukuyama is basically a chancer, a bullshitter who got lucky by saying the right thing to the right people at the right time. The interesting thing is what this shows about those people and that time. What happened to America at the end of the Cold War?

The Super Bowl is the most watched TV event of the year, a ‘patriotic holiday’, in the words of one commentator: ‘In an increasingly fractured television landscape, the Super Bowl is one of the few remaining “Who Shot JR” events – a national gathering around the set not prompted by news breaks like an assassination of a terrorist attack.’ (1) Before the game, former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior strode out together in identical suits amid the fanfare of a military band and an air force fly-by. The whole evening was a self-conscious celebration of all things American. As such, it provides a revealing glimpse of the American self-image.

What were they celebrating? The spread and defence of liberal democracy through military force, for one thing. As part of the pre-match extravaganza, Michael Douglas asked the audience to thank ‘the Greatest Generation’ for its bravery in ensuring the survival of American democracy during World War Two. National Football League (NFL) players recited sections of the Declaration of Independence. Troops in Iraq cheered via a satellite link. If that wasn’t enough, there followed a cloying commercial from Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Budweiser no less, in which contemporary troops walk through the arrival area of an American airport in slow motion and fellow citizens burst into spontaneous applause. The picture fades and a blank screen comes up, followed by the words ‘Thank you’, and the corporate logo.

That was a reminder that for all the patriotism, the star of the show was undoubtedly capitalism. Adverts were everywhere. An American football game contains 60 minutes of play; it takes four hours to unfold. This is because of the structure of the game, whereby every time one team loses the ball, both sides substitute all of their players – in other words, each team contains a defence and an attack, neither of which are on the pitch at the same time. In practice this means that after every few minutes of action, there is an advert break, so at least as much time is spent watching adverts as watching the game.

Some people might resent this; the Americans love it. Two days before the game the Chicago Tribune previewed the adverts excitedly and even speculated on how they would go down with Monday morning’s TV critics. With 30 seconds of advertising costing $2.4million, ‘the pressure is on advertisers [to] deliver ads that will be talked about at the water cooler Monday morning’ (2).

But there was pressure from another source too. The ghost of Janet Jackson’s right breast haunted proceedings from start to finish. Last year, during the half-time pop concert, Justin Timberlake ripped Jackson’s costume and exposed her right breast for all to see – to the absolute horror of the 540,000 people who complained to the Federal Communications Commission afterwards. Not only did this ‘wardrobe malfunction’ cost the TV company CBS a fine of $550,000, but it also ushered in a wave of (self-) censorship ranging from the absurd to the ridiculous.

Ford had made an advert showing a priest who lusts after a pick-up truck when someone puts their keys in the collection box by mistake, but decided to pull it when a support group for clergy sex abuse victims complained (3). Meanwhile, Sir Paul McCartney, the very emblem of establishment nostalgia-pop, had to sign a contract promising to keep his half-time show clean – and the NFL even insisted on reviewing the lyrics from his planned set just to make sure. No company was willing to carry the can for destroying American values.

What is striking is that anyone should accuse them of so doing. The desire to shock is just the flipside of the obsession with values. If people weren’t so willing to be offended, it wouldn’t be so fun to offend them. The real issue is why American society should be so concerned with values. The answer seems to lie in its increasing fixation on the past. It’s no coincidence that ‘the Greatest Generation’ is receiving so much attention; nor that the Super Bowl coverage was stuffed with clips from past games (albeit only those that had been shown on Fox), as if John Motson had stolen the keys to the editing room; nor that McCartney was chosen to perform. Whence this nostalgia?

America is obsessed with the past because it has no future. It has no future in the sense that the future is no longer part of the present (as it once was, back in the day…): present action is not guided by a vision of the future. This isn’t simply an American problem; it afflicts much of the West. Last summer Le Figaro ran a series of articles questioning what it is to be French and what has happened to France (see Debating the Republic). One of the more perceptive contributors wrote that France was suffering from a manque de prospective, a lack of future vision.

In America the lack of future vision can be seen can be seen in various fields of politics: in economic policy, where massive borrowing fuels not capital investment to ensure future growth but present consumption; in immigration policy, where people who want to come to the USA for a better future are turned away by those who want to conserve the present; in November 2004’s electoral combat, where neither Bush nor Kerry dared to offer a vision of the future. It can also be seen in foreign policy, where spiked has long argued that the key to the Iraq war was not oil, nor Israel, nor WMD, but the need of America and its allies to rediscover a sense of moral purpose.

To return to Fukuyama: it’s true that the End of History would seem to explain the manque de prospective in Western societies, but then the reverse is also true. After all, what kind of society could give rise to and embrace and End of History theory? One where, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘the future is already a thing of the past’ (4).

Jonny Thakkar is a PhD student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

(1) Alessandra Stanley, ‘A Little Malfeasance, but no Malfunctions’, New York Times, 7 February 2005

(2) Jim Kirk et al., ‘Scared Straight’, Chicago Tribune, 4 February 2005

(3) Jim Kirk et al., ‘Scared Straight’, Chicago Tribune, 4 February 2005

(4) Bob Dylan, ‘Bye and Bye’, Love and Theft (2001)

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Topics Politics

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