Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

End of History, again

Does the rise of the ultra right presage the end of the era of liberalism that declared its own triumph with the collapse of communism

Do you recall Francis Fukuyama, the author of that lengthy essay that evolved into a book called The End of History? That appeared about a quarter of a century ago. It was based on the theory that the historical dialectic came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ultimate victory of Western liberalism over its communist enemy. It postulated that this adversarial dialectic was the prime motivator for quantitative and qualitative shifts in the movement of events that, through their accumulation, constitute history, and that history would end when the “antithesis” had no choice but to surrender and merge with its adversary, the “thesis”. The “end of history”, in this sense, is not the end of events, developments or the movement of mankind, in general, or even of the evolution of the forces of production and their relationships. Rather, it is the end of the “dialectic” in the Hegelian sense of the term, whereby the conflict between opposing sets of ideas and ideological constructs is what fuels transformations over time. Accordingly, with the collapse of communism, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and with Third World national liberation movements, the Non-Aligned Movement and other by-products of the global dialectical conflict left stranded by the roadside, liberalism was the only order left for the world to emulate. Thus, history had reached its end, and what remained was no more than some domestic or international squabbles and skirmishes on some stages at the fringes.

In spite of the theory’s lustre at a time when the Western world was marching triumphantly to the summit, international political thought, even in the West, did not give in so easily to the notion of the end of the dialectic. Perhaps the foremost challenger was Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations, another essay that would develop into a book. Huntington spoke of a new category of contradictions that emanated from a broader concept than “the relations between the forces of production”, a concept that extended to embrace the notion of “civilisation” in its diverse manifestations over time and space and with its various facets in terms of traditions, culture, religion and value systems.

As political philosophies continued to compete, reality proved richer than the theories that attempted to explain it. The expansion of the EU (which had started out with six countries and grew to 28) and the growing depth of this union in terms of the belt of customs/security arrangements (Schengen) and the belt of economic arrangements (the Eurozone) heralded the spread of regional organisations based on economic and social functions and even trans-regional organisations that brought together countries that were geographically remote but at a similar stage in economic growth and development, such as BRICS (consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the G20 (which assumed the task of protecting the global economy from collapse following the financial crisis of 2008). But there was more than just the rise of new international institutions or even greater support for the UN when Obama came to power in the US. The world had begun to grapple with new issues, such as immigration, freer movement between nations and the growing phenomenon of the “global workshop” with many countries contributing to the manufacture of a particular product. The whole form and concept of airports and seaports were changing to accommodate to new types of global movements unknown before in history while advances in information technology supported and stimulated a clear but sometimes ambiguous trend known as globalisation.

In short, reality said that something global was happening. No matter how certain philosophies and theories were in their judgements, people believed what was happening on the ground before their very eyes and, until about a year ago or so, this was what informed the “common wisdom”. However, something happened in that interval of a year or so to precipitate a torrent of articles and commentaries proclaiming the “end of liberalism” and the “end of globalisation”. We have observed aspects of this trend before in this column in the course of our discussions of various events. However, what began as a relative trickle soon swelled into a flood, giving rise to Brexit and a surge in the popularity of the European ultra-right and, in particular, the most flagrantly racist, xenophobic and isolationist expressions of that ultra-right. Then Donald Trump was swept into the White House on the shoulders of white ultranationalists; Sweden reintroduced the draft; China extended its territories in the South China Sea by means of artificial islands and Russia annexed parts of Georgia and Ukraine and, more recently, established its military presence in Syria. All the forgoing is accompanied by a new type of war between international and regional multilateral coalitions, and radical Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, IS (the Islamic State group) and similar transnational organisations and groups whose common denominator is recourse to terrorism as a weapon to unleash against all mankind.

History has reached an end, again — very quickly this time. When the US tightens entry restrictions on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and reintroduces the visa requirement for citizens from 23 allies, compelling the EU to retaliate, this means that globalisation has lost much of its vigour and its ability to embody the closeness between nations, including those within the Western camp. The end this time came at the hands of the “rise of ultranationalist” theories. Trump’s “America first” was not the first of the new ultranationalisms. Many had preceded him with similar banners inspired by a desire to recoil from a world filled with danger, poor people and immigrants. In a sense, the radical Islamists’ claims regarding the nature of the West and the world have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. They saw the West as a Satan seething with racism and steeped in vice, so they declared war against it and the Western way of life, and it was as though this caused all the ultranationalist fanaticisms to explode from beneath the surface and gain ascendency over the liberal spirit with its cardinal principles of equality and freedom for all regardless of race, creed or colour. Trump’s discourse is not about defeating terrorism but about annihilating radical Islamists from the face of the earth, and it is reminiscent of the types of genocidal cries that have haunted humanity before, calls for the massacre of “inferior” races, or of affiliates to nasty creeds such as communism.

The question now is whether this recent “end of history” is, indeed, the last word and theory or whether it is all a passing paroxysm borne of the conflicting international circumstances that always arise in the course of history. History does not proceed in one direction, after all. What we are seeing today may prove no more than a transient glitch that will last a few years, at which point the storms will abate, allowing Noah’s global ark to resume a more tranquil course. Technological and scientific advances have not come to a halt; they have proliferated with increasing speed thanks to the fourth techno-industrial revolution. Such developments cannot be kept inside a laboratory or even a single society because they are “global” by their very nature and they require a “global” market in order to attain their natural fruition. Also, can ultranationalism resume its original form at a time when nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have proliferated to such an extent that it is too nightmarish to conceive of a return to regional or international wars of the sort that the world has experienced before? Such factors seem to weigh in favour of the transient nature of the current tide. However, this transience does not exonerate this phenomenon from the challenge it poses at this time and it does not free us of the need to analyse and understand it, and to formulate appropriate policies to address it.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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