Fukuyama and the Mechanism of Directionally Dynamic History

Francis Fukuyama’s account of historical dynamism has been criticized on the grounds that it adopts selection criteria to measure progress that are uniquely “western.” This criticism, I believe, misses the point, for it suggests that it is all simply a matter of perspective, which is not a way to engage in discussion, but a way to foreclose upon discussion. However we may feel about the explosion in technology and science that took hold from the sixteenth century forward in western Europe, I do not feel that there is much to be gained disputing this explosion itself. Nor can much be gained by disputing that, for example, rockets launched into orbit rely for their success upon a grasp of the material world that, in terms of technical rationality, is more advanced and more accurate than the technically rational grasp of the world at any earlier time in history and at any point on the globe. And, so, Francis Fukuyama’s argument holds prima facia validity. The world is more thoroughly integrated and has assumed a more comprehensive logical form and greater rational coherence.

This is not where my objection lies. First is the substantive objection that the directional dynamic that Fukuyama ascribes to science, war, and technology is only sufficient to explain the last five hundred years, which, not coincidentally, coincide with the emergence of capitalism in western Europe. Second, however, is the way that Fukuyama reads a logic of efficiency onto an historical landscape that, by his own admission, is shaped by other forces, processes, and structures.

Whether deliberately or not, this means that Fukuyama overlooks the actual historical occasions for the historical dynamic he has, in my view, correctly identified.

This is a very different argument than the one frequently leveled against Fukuyama, which, in my view, leads nowhere. For the claim that he is Eurocentric, if true, forces us into the corner of “perspectivism,” in which case it’s his perspective versus mine; or it leads me to announce what I believe is an even more preposterous claim, namely, that my perspective is superior, which is to say more objective, than his.

Rather than retreat into a kind of “perspectivism,” I believe it is more helpful to challenge his position substantively, which has the advantage of proposing criteria that are independent of our perspectives. We can survey our paleoanthropologists and our historians of ancient Vedic, Chinese, Incan, Mayan and or the ancient Nubian or Hausa in Africa. Yes, ancient communities did engage in armed conflict. But, no, these conflicts were not decisive for the ongoing, day-to-day existence of most human beings. Yes, the great riverine civilizations impounded the labor of their populations in the service of royal politico-religious courts. But the vast majority of human beings chose to slip away into mountain and plains wandering nomadic or semi-nomadic communities. Moreover, all of the existing research suggests that instead of spending most of their time “in search of more basic needs like security and food” (the Neolithic prejudice first noted by Marshall Sahlins), they spent most of their time doing things that, quite frankly, I wish I had more time to do: playing (Nurit Bird-David, “Beyond the Affluent Society”).

To be sure, we need not idealize the past in order to recognize that Fukuyama’s stylization of it serves a specific function: to support his claim that history betrays a directional dynamic from its earliest beginnings and his claim that, as it unfolds, it displays ever more superior civilizational forms. Here, according to Fukuyama, a civilizational form proves itself superior by its survival. And it survives, he argues, because it displays relatively greater instrumental rationality and military technical rationality. But, as Fukuyama himself recognizes, these criteria only acquire general social validity at the dawn of the modern epoch and only in western Europe once capitalism has taken hold:

Men may pursue a thousand and one goals in pre-industrial societies: religion or tradition may dictate that the life of an aristocratic warrior is superior to that of a city merchant; a priest may prescribe the just price for a certain commodity. But a society that lives by such rules will not allocate its resources efficiently, and will therefore not develop economically as fast as one that lives by rational rules (p. 79).

Surely Fukuyama is correct. “A society that lives by such rules will not allocate its resources efficiently.” From this, however, it does not follow that the drive toward efficient resource allocation is a “natural” human attribute. To the contrary, the fact that it took human beings 2.4M years to adopt and impose this criteria on itself (as well as others) could suggest a mechanism other than technical instrumental efficiency.

Fukuyama’s narrative also serves another function. It diverts both his and our attention away from a more satisfying explanation for the phenomena he is trying to grasp. (And, again, this is not an argument about our respective perspectives. Rather it is an argument about the adequacy of his explanation.)

If Fukuyama draws all of his substantive examples from western Europe from the sixteenth century forwards, this could suggest that we need to look for the mechanism he is searching for not in a transhistorically inflected “science” or “civilizational superiority,” but perhaps in a new regime of practice for which technical-instrumental rationality and efficiency were just then becoming central values.

And, yes, from that point forward, this extraordinarily efficient and productive system quite literally explodes into the rest of the world, undermining and laying waste to all prior “inferior” modes of social, political, and economic mediation, and replacing these with a level of instrumentally rational, technical integration hitherto fore unimaginable.

But, notice: our aim in offering this more satisfying explanation is not to find fault, whether with Fukuyama or with the “West,” or even with capitalism. Rather is our aim to enjoy a better understanding of the phenomena to which both Fukuyama and we are directing our attention, this peculiar dynamic that has led us to “the end of history.”