The End of the West and the Future of History


Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past
George Orwell, 1984

The End of the West, whether as a real or perceived phenomenon, is one of the reasons for the recent success of populists across the world. We are facing the end of the “Big Idea” that was able to contain — up to the point — radical ideologies from winning in Europe and pacify internal divisions between and within the states.

It is sometimes hard to accept the fact that we all are not living in the same time. Angela Merkel after the Russian annexation of Crimea, stunned by her telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, observed that “She was not sure he was in touch with reality.” The Russian leader, she added, seemed to be “in another world”. And John Kerry on CBS added “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pre-text”.[1] You simply just don’t behave like this anymore. “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed”, wrote William Gibson. The same with the past - in some places there is more past than in others. 

A couple of months before the fall of the Berlin Wall a little-known state department official wrote the famous essay,[2] from which most critics only read the title. Many said the "end of history" was synonymous with the statement that "nothing significant would ever happen", which ignited numerous columns triumphantly proclaiming the "return of history” a decade or so later. 

The globalisation seen after the Cold War offered a golden bridge towards the brighter future. Somehow the muddy ground underneath - the unsolved border problems from the century back, national tensions within the states or installing democratic institutions in the countries that had only very little experience with such, it all seemed irrelevant. The idea of “the end of history" was an unprecedented success because it best reflected the zeitgeist prevailing among the victorious Western elites. “’End of history’, wrote Marci Shore, “was a version of the cry ‘the Evil witch is dead, and we will live happily ever after!’”[3] 

A trip to modernity

The inevitability of the final destination epitomised by ‘the end of the history’ made the transition of the former communist states a one way path. The imitation, as described by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, required the imitators to look upon the West for guidance, assistance and simultaneously to reject their own way of development.[4] Any “third way” was seen as a dangerous utopia. Analogous, perhaps, to the peak of the communist era when national models (such as Tito’s Yugoslavia) were considered illegitimate. 

Under communism Central and Eastern Europe was forced to imitate the East while it was urged to become like West, “a normal country”. It wasn’t until too late that they realised that such an imaginary future does not exist. There was more metaphysics in that vision that comparative government or public policy theory. The imitation became reality. To some extent, as Krastev and Holmes suggest, it was voluntary, emerging from deep complexes and self-doubt. Former peoples’ republics were passive recipients of the Western ideology and pop culture, new savoir vivre. In a way it resembled a communist revolution of the 1950s, but this time they were eager to learn and to convert. If they did not they were not facing imprisonment or chicanery but something almost as fearful: mockery.

Zuzana Čaputová, the president of Slovakia, said at the 2020 Munich Security Conference: 

“We grasped democracy, progress, or reforms over the past thirty years in a rather technical way. Economic growth expressed in numbers. Reforms translated into a number of new institutions. A set of criteria to be fulfilled. It’s as if we have forgotten that democracy—and, may I say, Europe and the West as such—are mainly about the spirit of freedom, of justice, tolerance, and solidarity”.[5] 

“Imitation” is merely the psychological counterpart of the modernisation theory, wrote Arjun Appadurai in his forceful critique of The Light that Failed, making a case against modernisation theory: 

“The scandal of modernization theory is not just its parochial, Eurocentric, patronizing, and self-aggrandizing message but the zeal with which it was adopted by Western elites in government, private foundations, aid agencies, think tanks, and universities since the late 1950s, and was forced upon the world as a compulsory goal.”[6]

What Appadurai misses is the fact that modernisation theory does not necessarily have to be right just to be effective, the same way that neo-liberalism did not have to be the ‘true’ economic theory to become the only game in town shaping the policy and minds of political elites for more than a generation. And effectiveness is all that mattered in terms of the imitation taking place in the Central Eastern Europe. 

Whatever one might think, having the comfort of the hindsight, about the neoliberal economic doctrine of the era and bureaucratic indifference of EU institutions at a time, they played their part. If CEE leaders didn’t believe in Fukuyama they would have been doomed, as only through the faith they found a crossing through the ‘Red Sea’ of the transition, deprived of capital, institutions and most of all political culture that was necessary for the democracy to thrive (markets, as we know are more resilient).

Venelin I. Ganev in his erudite essay, ‘Post-Accession Politics and Democratic Backsliding in Eastern Europe: Analytical Improvisations on Tocquevillean, Schmittean and Weberian Themes’, explained how their perspective on European integration was influencing the decisions of elites in CEE, keeping at bay (with exceptions such as Slovakia under Mecziar) nationalistic or post-communist sentiments. Nato and EU accessions were extremely successful in limiting the field in which the game was played. Ethnic tensions - such as with Hungarian minority in virtually all its neighbours, Roma integration, which until today is a bleeding wound in all but Poland of the V4 countries, and most off all social tensions derived from the unprecedented collapse of the whole economic and social structure, corruption, rising criminality rates and poverty, especially in the formerly industrial and leading regions of the CEE - all of these issues did not derail the programme of democratic and economic reforms.

Is transition a really proper word for the process undertaken by the CEE? It seems as though these states embarked on a trip to modernity in which the decorations had changed and the time had passed. The observers were static, the world was moving. But when the trip was over and CEE was transported to the certain point in time it occurred, then it found it remained as before. It is almost as though the western and eastern part of the continent finally met and did not necessarily like what they saw.

The EU’s “implicit foreign policy’, wrote Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom, “was to persuade leaders and societies who wished for access to European markets to embrace the rule of law and democracy. Citizens of non-member states who wanted European markets or values would pressure governments to negotiate with the EU, and vote out leaders who failed to do so. This seemed to work in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.”[7] Until, that is, it didn’t.

Once upon a time in the West

After the Cold War, in the shadow of the nuclear confrontation, the collective sigh of relief epitomised in the ‘End of History’, allowing to finally turn away from the geopolitics to something more exciting and profitable was in a high demand. The problem of the post-Cold War epistemology was that it acknowledged the ideas that fit a certain pattern, constantly proving that it is the relationship of the West - either triumphant (until 9/11) or under siege (during the War with Terror and until the defeat of the ISIS) with the outside world as the most pressing concern of the day. The sudden return of the ‘Clash of civilisations’ on the pundits’ shelves did not contradict the dominating logic of the post-Cold War era. There was an enemy, fundamentally confronting ‘our way of life’ and threatening Western values.

Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger: A History of the Present bitterly observes that, “It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed – catastrophically failed – while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment – inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance – has been a wild success.”[8] 

Since the fall of communism, the Washington Consensus has been the only meaningful ideological package, dominating in expert salons, in the media and, most importantly, in political practice. Lowering taxes, also for the richest, open financial markets, a policy of low deficits, an economic policy de facto subordinated to international financial institutions. It turned out that Asian countries that followed a completely different path, based on protectionism and strong ties between government and the private sector have often fared better than the repeatedly bankrupted Latin American countries.

The economic crisis of 2008 exposed the fundamental weaknesses of the development model based on cheap money and complex financial instruments. By taking up debt for future generations, governments had to save the banking system from catastrophe. The experiences of the crisis forced even the greatest admirers of hyper-globalisation such as Lawrence Summers to revise their position. The middle class and blue collar workers in the USA, whose wages stagnated since 1970s are the biggest losers of the last fifty years. The mythical social mobility of Americans is just a myth, and in this respect, they rank the lowest among developed countries. The American dream still exists, but probably not in America anymore.

It wasn’t until the financial crisis of 2007/8 that this familiar map of the past was seriously put into question. Only 8 years later, with the election of Trump and Brexit and the coronation for life of Xi Jinping, the West recognised that it not only understands very little about the outside world but is also quite negligent in the art of self-recognition. As US Financial Times correspondent, Edward Luce noted “At some point during the 2008 global financial crisis, the Washington Consensus died”[9]. And with it a magical spell of the West on its peripheries – and also interlay, in its own societies - was broken.

End of linear time

Timothy Snyder made the distinction between two different senses and narratives of time: 
“The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”[10]

Pankaj Mishra makes a strong argument for the less sterile version of the history of modernity that we like to tell ourselves. Blood on the streets, wars, revolutions, slavery, colonialism. These are all part of the same history as Enlightenment, industrialisation, universal suffrage. The West looking with the sense of disgust and with little understanding towards the rise of Indian nationalism, the radicalisation of political Islam or authoritarian tendencies in Eastern Europe is in fact looking in the mirror. The resentment that accelerated in the recent decade among the peripheries of the West - from the Arab world, through Latin America to Eastern Europe is nothing but a dark side of the moon overlooking a shining path of progress. The orientalisation of Eastern Europe makes little sense in the era of Trump and Brexit, when the very centre of the modernisation project seems to be crumbling.

Polarisation and the illiberalisation of democracy is a common phenomenon, not geographically limited, but it is particularly threatening at the peripheries where institutions are weak and lacking the deep roots of more developed western democracies. Neither Trump nor Brexit were able, despite terrible consequences, to seriously impede the democratic health of the, US or UK respectively. The death toll from COVID-19 in the countries ruled by the short-sighted leaders with authoritarian predilections is staggering. But neither of the Anglo-Saxon political systems countries are broken beyond the ability to heal itself, unlike those in Russia, or perhaps in Turkey and Hungary.

With the waning forces of the Western political and cultural gravity and declining motivation for self-improvement towards once more undefined and possibly dangerous future, history made for a perfect refuge. Once in place, the simple tool of historical overstretched analogy was a lethal weapon. The political career of Donald Tusk was successfully impaired by the suggestions that he is an agent of German interests. He lost presidential elections in 2005 and didn’t return in 2020 because the propaganda depicted him as “not Polish enough”. Playing the card of national treason proved quite effective, during the conflict about judiciary, when the European rules and institutions supported claims of the opposition and independent courts about breaking the Polish constitution by the government.

“Although most of the anticommunist dissidents had seen the need for a “return to Europe” after 1989, actual membership in the European Union after 2004 or 2007 allowed for forgetfulness. The crises after the First and Second World Wars, when the nation-state as such had proven untenable, were recast as unique moments of national victimhood. Young east Europeans were not taught to reflect on the reasons for state failure in the 1930s or 1940s. Seeing themselves exclusively as innocent victims of German and Soviet empire, they celebrated the brief interwar moment when nation-states could be found on the territory of eastern Europe. They forgot that these states were doomed not just by malice but also by structure: without a European order, they had little chance to survive.”[11] 

History is catching up

The West bade farewell to history because it was convenient. All it had to do was ‘rise and shine"’. The baton of historical progressivism was passed from communism to democratic capitalism. History as a battle was won. Now it was time to fulfil its purpose. Globalisation, the actual incorporation of late capitalism into the largest number of economies and areas of life, became the buzzword of the day. Democracy was to become a desirable, though by no means imperative, side effect of getting rich. The structure of capitalism and liberal democracy were the default model, almost as in some magical way, the last 45 years of history didn’t happen. 

The historical context of ‘The End of History’ really determined the reception of this, perhaps most influential essay. It was easy to read between the lines that if communism really fell down under the weight of its own contradictions that history must constitute a force of its own. The more unexpected was a peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, the more plausible it seemed to expect that the tide of history would sweep away whatever stands in its way. Such reading of Fukuyama could not be further from the truth. In fact, the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union was only the proof that history bears no inner sense. That no matter how powerful the metaphors and sociological analysis of Marxism there is no such a thing as an invincible system of beliefs, even if supported by tanks and nuclear warheads. And even if such systems of belief exist, traditional religions with their organisation seem to be much closer to that ideal than any modern ideologies or socio-political theories of modernity. Perhaps more nuanced philosophers should conclude from this that socialism ‘the East’, died, and however triumphant ‘the West’ was at the moment, it is also still mortal. 

This was the real end of the history — a belief that history did not really matter, which backfired so strongly in the Balkan wars and across Eastern Europe in the last decade. Fukuyama's, no doubt unintentional, mistake was to reassure the Western elite that the inevitability of democracy means that you do not need a continuous, conscious effort to sustain it.

[2] Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16, Center for the National Interest, 1989, pp. 3–18.
[4] Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, 2019, The Light that Failed; A Reckoning Penguin Books: London.  
[7] Timothy Snyder, 2018, The Road to Unfreedom, Tim Duggan Books: London. 
[8] Pankaj Mishra, 2017, Age of Anger; A History of the Present, Penguin Books: London. 
[9] Edward Luce, 2017, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Little, Brown Books: London. 
[10] Timothy Snyder, Road to Unfreedom 
[11] Ibid 

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).