'Human Rights Imperialism' or Global Homogenization of Culture? Has the Age of Revolution ended in 1989?

A Discussion of Francis Fukuyama's Arguments

Essay 2015 14 Pages

Cultural Studies - Basics and Definitions



I. Introduction

II. Summary of Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man’
History vs. history
Liberal Democracy

III. Compare and Contrast to Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’
Modernization vs. Westernization and America’s Imperial Role
The Role of the Nation State
Theory of Revolution
Alternatives to Liberal Democracy: Confucianism and Islamism

IV. Post- 1989 Events that Let Us Question Fukuyama’s Thesis

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, “a round of self-congratulations was sparked in the West”[1] as the Western democracies had successfully won the Cold War which further led to the belief in the “universalization of Western liberal democracy”[2].

200 years after the Great Revolution in France, inspired by secularized enlightenment, managed to end the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI., and paved the way for more democratic governments all throughout Western Europe, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of History, as the world had reached its final destination, “the only coherent political aspiration that spans different religions and cultures around the globe”[3]: liberal democracy.

Further developments in international relations, such as the rise of terrorism or the economic success of China’s authoritarian regime, however, lead to continued discussions about whether liberal democracy can really be considered to be the peak of all civilizations or whether it was simply Western ethnocentrism that led Fukuyama to believe in the superiority of Western values and Western politics. After all, competing ideologies continue to exist today and as the rise in radical anti- Western movements has shown, America’s role in the world remains at best ambiguous.

After briefly summarizing Fukuyama’s theory, the following essay will attempt to compare and contrast several aspects of his work to Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 ‘Clash of Civilizations’, in which he strongly opposes Fukuyama’s concept of global homogenization and instead argues in favor of “a multi-polar, civilization-divergent course”[4]. I will then continue to show post- 1989 examples that question today’s salience of Fukuyama’s argument and also comment on the difficulties that we face when trying to define ‘revolution’ in general, invariant terms. The final question that is open to answer is whether or to what extent those recent events can still be considered ‘revolutions’, if we assume that History has really ended in 1989. Does the term ‘revolution’ necessarily imply directedness towards the establishment of liberal democracy, or can revolutions also occur in another direction? If the end of History means an end of revolution, what does that make the social changes that occurred after?

II. Summary of Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man’

History vs. history

Fukuyama begins his argument with the concession that the 20th century has been rather “pessimistic” and that people today no longer tend to believe in “such a thing as historical progress”[5]. From a Western perspective, the 19th century “was by and large a time of peace, economic progress and social confidence”[6], comprising not only the Industrial Revolution, but also the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign of terror and the growing importance of natural sciences, and therefore creating the common belief in a “universal historical evolution of mankind, from backwardness to civilization”[7]. The 20th century, however, then started out with two World Wars, including the tremendous violations of basic human rights during the Holocaust, and saw the world stagnated in a Cold War for most of the second half of the century, which revealed mankind’s potential for conflict and the two- sidedness of modern technology because it has the ability to easily destroy the civilization that it initially owes its existence to. This, in effect, tore down the basis for the belief in historical progress and led to a rather pessimistic attitude among the majority of the people which caused vehement criticism of Fukuyama’s rather optimistic proclamation that History had ended in 1989.

It is important to note, as Fukuyama himself explains in the preface to his 1992 work ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, that ‘history’ as the recollection of events that happened in the past, is not the same as the capitalized ‘History’ in the Hegelian sense, which he describes as “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[8]. 1989 did obviously not mark the end of the chain of historic events, but with the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe, it could certainly be seen as a milestone in the establishment of an overall democratic consciousness, which at that time ended any fundamental ideological questions. Communism would, Fukuyama argues, “henceforth be associated with a high degree of political and economic backwardness”[9] which led him to proclaim the beginning of a “Worldwide Liberal Revolution”[10]. The underlying basic principles of freedom and equality, he explains further, are superior to any other alternative principles or forms of social and political organization which is why, in Fukuyama’s opinion, even if liberalism has not yet been victorious throughout the world, it will eventually not only be implemented in the most advanced countries, but everywhere because “capitalism is a path toward economic development that is potentially available to all countries”[11]. Since all countries strive for modernization, prosperity and economic development, liberalism and the worldwide homogenization towards one common political and economic system seem inevitable, if we follow Fukuyama’s argument.

Further reasoning can be found in Fukuyama’s interpretation of the German philosophers Karl Marx and Georg W.F. Hegel, who both argued in favor of a directedness of human History towards a certain most- desirable endpoint. In the case of Marx, this endpoint is the “advance through capitalism to socialism”[12] by means of a liberation struggle of the proletariat against feudalism:

“[…] it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until […] the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far- not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world- that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of workers.” (Marx in Revolutions of 1848, p. 323-324)


Although Fukuyama certainly does not agree with Marx’s proposed endpoint of human History, he adopted the concept of directedness of worldwide human History and the notion that the most- desirable endpoint is a state in which people’s desire for recognition has been satisfied[13]. This understanding of History dates further back to the ideas of Georg W.F. Hegel, who “declared that History had ended after the Battle of Jena in 1806”[14], when the Prussian army was defeated by Napoleon, whom he saw as the personification of the spirit of the French Revolution and thus as a liberator of Prussia.

I saw the Emperor [Napoleon] – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”

(Hegel in a Letter to Niethammer, 13th October 1806)

Hegel’s most desirable endpoint was the liberal state, which comes closer to what Fukuyama has suggested. According to his interpreter Alexandre Kojève, he bases this belief in the assumption that the “’universal and homogenous state’- what we can understand as liberal democracy- definitely solved the question of recognition” because it ended the relationship pattern of “lordship and bondage”[15], where one individual was superior to another, and replaced it by equality, which thus granted equal, “reciprocal recognition”[16] for everyone. Fukuyama, too, adopts the problem of equal recognition into his argument by saying that “recognition is the central problem of politics because it is the origin of tyranny, imperialism, and the desire to dominate”[17]. Only in a political system that is based on equality, such as liberal democracy, will we be able to find “the irrational desire to be recognized as greater than others [replaced] with a rational desire to be recognized as equal”[18].

Liberal Democracy

As reasonable as this might seem as an a priori concept, there are two central strands of opposition that are rooted in a more empirical line of argument, questioning whether the contemporary liberal democratic states are truly able to adequately satisfy people’s need for recognition. Opposition on the left points out that there is a “continuing tension between the twin principles of liberty and equality”[19], because more freedom- as in a capitalist economy- automatically leads to less equality. On the other hand, critics on the right argue that equal recognition is in fact a “dissatisfying situation for the last man” because of the “impossibility of attaining appropriate levels of superior recognition”[20]. Fukuyama does, in part, concede to these objections, but he attributes inequality not to the system itself, but to “natural inequality of talents, the economically necessary division of labor, and to culture”[21] --a statement that, although limiting his utopian perspective, clearly shows a certain degree of Western ethnocentrism.

Even though he admits certain shortcomings of liberal democracy, such as continued inequality in some respects, he continues to defend it as the ideal political and economic system towards which all countries will eventually convert. It remains unclear, however, what exactly constitutes liberal democracy, for it is possible to accept the basic principles of freedom and equality, yet “to disagree profoundly that ‘multi- party elections and guarantees of basic human rights’ represent the ultimate, contradiction- free institutionalization of these principles”[22]. To assume that the typical Western institutions are necessarily implied in the concept of freedom and equality and that they can thus be implemented in all parts of the world, is again highly ethnocentric because it ignores the existing historical and cultural differences between different states. The development of 1st world countries is not a universal scheme that can be applied everywhere else because it is itself bound to certain historical and cultural conditions. Fukuyama, however, takes the example of post- World War II economic growth in Asia to show that capitalism has “tremendous homogenizing power”[23] and ascribes the prosperity of the Middle East, which doesn’t include any stable democracies, to oil only[24].


[1] Georghiu, Costa, “Unexpected Convergence: The Huntington/ Fukuyama Debate”, Acta Academica 46(2014): 36, accessed February 25th, 2015, http://reference.sabinet.co.za.ez.sun.ac.za/webx/access/electronic_journals/academ/academ_v46_n2_a3.pdf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Penguin, 1992), 13.

[4] Georghiu, Costa, “Unexpected Convergence”, 35.

[5] Fukuyama, The End, 13.

[6] Löwy, Michael, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (London: Unwind Brothers, 1981), 242

[7] Ibid.

[8] Fukuyama, The End, 66.

[9] Ibid., 35

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 101.

[12] O’Sullivan, Noel, Revolutionary Theory and Political Reality, ed. Noel O’ Sullivan (Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1983), preface.

[13] Fukuyama, The End, 18.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] Ibid., 21.

[16] Ibid., 18.

[17] Ibid., 21.

[18] Ibid., 20.

[19] Munroe, Trevor, “The Midst, not the End of History“, Social and Economic Studies 42(1993): 251.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Fukuyama, The End, 291.

[22] Munroe, “The Midst“, 255.

[23] Fukuyama, The End, 108.

[24] Ibid., 112.


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Title: 'Human Rights Imperialism' or Global Homogenization of Culture? Has the Age of Revolution ended in 1989?