The End of History and the Romantic Return
Many public commentators, including Tyler Cowen and Yuval Levin, have noted that ours is an age of Western nostalgia. People seem to long for a mythology of time past, when ‘things were in their place’, and the heads of the common folk were held high. Furthermore, of a time when belief in a transcendent public cause was dominant, and the individual responded to commands made by the group. Populists and nationalists across the board have heard the call and spread it with abandon. Leading the pack has been Trump’s bombastic sloganeering and moves towards restricted movement of people and migration, xenophobic rhetoric, protectionism in trade, and other policies reminiscent of earlier populist movements. In France, Marine LePen has railed against globalization and attacked what she sees as a dominant ‘neoliberal’ free market order. These views, along with her harsh stances on migrants and refugees, particularly from Arab, African, and Islamic countries, are (if anything) more virulent than Trump’s own. They have been followed by similar movements and figures across Europe and in certain non-Western developing countries such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.
Some time ago, Francis Fukuyama called attention to this potential turn in modern liberal democratic politics in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”. Fukuyama is often characterized as making the claim that the liberal democratic state itself is the Final Form (™) of political organization into which we will all inevitably transform, that the rough and tumble of social change is over. For Fukuyama, the End of History represents the move out of constant tribal warfare and premodern forms of social behaviour and interaction. It is true that Fukuyama argued that the institutional framework of liberal democracy was the most workable set of structures given the contradictions and tensions society faces. However, it is crucial to stress that his larger argument was to demonstrate the profound ways in which modern institutions represent something uniquely new in human organization and self-understanding.
Crucially, what Fukuyama was truly calling attention to the power of the ideas that liberal modernity reflects. It is the ideas of liberalism and democracy and the related bundle of concepts that ever after, change the way we think about the world and what is normatively important in our social structures, unlike that of regimes in much of previous history. Notably, liberal democracy philosophically challenges the competitors to it to self-justify in contrast. We can find this phenomenon in many places, from attempts by illiberal regimes to defend their human rights record at the UN, to reactionary leaders spinning rhetoric that damns liberalism whole cloth.
In the words of Salvador Dali: “Don’t bother about being modern. Unfortunately, it is the one thing that, whatever you do, you cannot avoid.” Or as the sociologist Peter Berger might put it, in the world we live in, everyone is a heretic.
A second key emphasis are the significant ways in which Fukuyama was not uncritically sanguine or confident about History as nothing but a fading theme. He had argued, via Hegel, that the search for recognition was a key driver of institutional and social shifts over time. For Fukuyama, a central theme of the transitions of history have been about how to confront thymos– the deep desire in all of us to hold status and be valued as unique and important. At the same time, he emphasized that the face of recognition, like that of Janus, has more than one side.
As Paul Sagar recently noted:
Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.
It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy – could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions – it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that. Late capitalist modernity might be the highest civilizational point we could achieve, because it contained the fewest contradictions. But there was strong reason to suspect that we’d slide off the top, back into History, down into something worse.
This was because, Fukuyama thought, human beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn vicious, finding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.
This urge for recognition not solely as one of equally portioned human dignity, but as a force which can edge into dominance and social control, is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, many of these themes can be found in what Isaiah Berlin famously termed ‘’The Counter-Enlightenment”, and the emergence of Romanticism in the 19th century.
The Romantic movement was a composed out of many different cultural and philosophical impulses. Part of Romanticism was a rebellion against the ideal of reason as held up by the Enlightenment, understood as the chief tool in solving the various political, social and philosophical problems we face. Romantics argued that the focus on reason had dulled the most essential parts of humanity, the primeval spirits which make life full of flavour and depth. They attacked the modernist project for seeking to make life too ordered, too regular, too peaceful, too lacking in tragedy, grand narratives and extreme, sacralised passions.
As an illustration, consider this conversation between John the Savage and Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:
But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’
‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer, the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.
‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.
Naturalism served as another focal point. Romantics prized a return to nature, to the baser urges in humanity for physicality through sex and free love. It counseled in favour of the primitive over the press and push of industrial civilization. We can find this view in many places, from the poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley to the work of thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Nietzsche. They sought authenticity and self-discovery, a precursor to the generations that would come with the beatniks and the hippies. At the same time, they often interpreted this authenticity in favour of a restrictive elitism, in which certain exalted individuals and ‘Great Men’ held a natural superiority and self-identity to the rest that made their passions and interests more important than those of ‘’common people”.
This lead many Romantics to also emphasize a move towards the collective against the concept of the autonomous individual. They argued that we should divert the passions of self in favour of a group mission that was bigger than any one person, to achieve a way of being higher than our own self-directed preferences. This permitted these people uniquely to act as leaders and reflect the “General Will’’ of the group. Emergent with these themes were ideologies of nationalism, social hierarchy and racial division. Romanticism easily led into the writings of authors such as Johann Fichte, Johann Herder, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and others, who brought racialism and volkisch ideology to the fore.
However, intellectual history is extremely complex, and the division I have been describing is a deeply crude generalization about different historical and philosophical debates with a variety of perspectives (such as Enlightenment divides between anti-authoritarian individualists and technocratic central planners, and/or between skeptics and advocates of the unrestricted application of reason). Thus, perhaps contrary to some recent accounts, the Enlightenment (as the name unhelpfully encourages) was not a simple binary between the forces of reason and liberty against those of mysticism and authority. Nonetheless, we can arguably identify an important broad split, between the believers in the idea of progress and scientific inquiry, in working towards social uplift, in the values of moral equality, universal autonomy and common suffrage, and those who argued for a return to the passions, to enmity between groups, to primal urges and strong hierarchy.
We can find a recurrence of these themes in the rhetoric and focus, both explicitly in the alt-right, as well as less bluntly via the return of modern populism. For the alt-right, like their declinist forebears, liberal democracy has abandoned the natural divisions of mankind, between social groups, gender, and most prominently, race and ethnicity. They call themselves, in the words of Richard Spencer, the defenders of “ethnostatism”, and “white nationalism”. In strategic and economic terms, they see the world in “win-lose”, rather than “win-win” sets of exchanges. They are staunch critics of free and open economies, paralleling their larger vendetta against pluralistic, egalitarian and cosmopolitan institutions.
Likewise, for the new populism, the only way forward is to work in terms of group dominance, putting natives before foreigners, majorities before minorities, and so on. This zero-sum mentality parallels that of the alt-right, albeit in less explicit racialized terms. For populists, the answer to the problems of contemporary life is to seek solace in strongman leaders who will represent these interests, “get things done”, and “speak their minds”, feeding from, as well as encouraging, the drives of the public. Furthermore, these leaders are perceived representatives of a restorative zeitgeist that will re-establish lost honour. They will Make America Great Again.
As Fukuyama presciently argued, for these late children of the Romantics, what is truly disturbing about modernity has been the emergence of “men without chests”. This phrase, borrowed from Nietzsche, describes the social condition of people in modernity who no longer wish to live with the hierarchies and power relations of old. Modern people have put aside concepts like honour, spread thinly in the distribution of status, in favour of doctrines like the equality for all.
Yet, this move towards moral egalitarianism and respect for persons is only part of what I think is truly problematic for the alt right, and indeed, for the new populism. Liberalism, as the central ideology of the modern world, is a creed that prioritizes liberty and equality as its defining political values. As a result, it dismisses ‘megalothymia’ in favour of simply ‘thymia’. Liberalism insists on universal recognition, equality, and freedoms for all. As Jeremy Waldron argues, the Enlightenment contribution was to declare all human beings dignified, to raise them up, and by doing so, level the moral playing field. As I will discuss, these ethical shifts went hand in hand with institutions that produce systems of dynamism over stasis. This has proven to be deeply unsettling for many. Crucially however, these are not bugs, but features. On net, they present an array of opportunities, compared with the potential for loss.
Modern Disruption and Liberal Existentialism
“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
“The absurd depends as much upon man as upon the world.”
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
As creatures of late or even post-modernity, we constantly seek new ways of finding our place in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world. Market forces under inclusive institutions, while immensely powerful and responsible for the single greatest reduction in poverty in all of world history, are also extremely disruptive- hence the justly famous notion of “creative destruction”. Democratic and republican systems have likewise reshaped the relations between rulers and those they govern, making the state (if very imperfectly) more accountable to the public. At the same time, they have resulted in the tug and pull of messy coalitions, constant turnover and party politicking. This sharply contrasts with the predictable rhythms of monarchy or tribe, in which power rarely changed hands and dynasties stretched on for long periods. As the world industrialized, huge movements of people traveled from the country to the city, changing ways of life for millions.
Overall, modern life has been characterized by massive social changes. As Max Weber famously argued, modernity “disenchanted” the world, replacing the mystical warmth of traditional and charismatic authority with coldly bureaucratic legalism and the “iron cage” of mechanical efficiency and rational calculation. Thus, while the new populism may be attributable in varying degrees to both economic disruption and xenophobic nativism, these elements are but triggers for a larger existential sense that the world is not set firmly on it’s moorings, and that some kind of larger spiritual home is missing. As a result, the populist revival is notably welded to reconceiving peoplehood, nation and group identity, to recover the sense of psychic stability found in premodern villages and tribes. Like the inventions of the concepts of biblical “inerrancy”, “literalism” and “infallibility” (far less common in premodern religious hermeneutics), the new populism trades on a need to rebuild a foundational creed. It is no accident, for example, that the alt-right is full of romance for the tropes of the medieval era.
As Benedict Anderson noted in his classic study Imagined Communities, the construction of national identities in the modern era came on the heels of the social and cognitive trends outlined by Weber. Its social roots grew in the soil of modern technologies like the printing press and later industrialism, contributing to the spread of national languages along with standardized calendars and time keeping, feeding into broader cultural self-conceptions. Over time, people began to view themselves not as members of a local area with its own dialect and customs, but as member of a larger social group. These organic shifts were expanded upon and purposefully manipulated by ruling authorities to pull disparate groups together, via the self-conscious creation of patriotic narratives of common belonging. Notably, modern governments wed the natural emergence of a common culture in service of state power and imperialist war-making. This “reactionary modernism” sought somewhat paradoxically use the tools of modernity such as the mass media to reify premodern, mythic narratives of group pride and control. Notably, these stories never rested on any genuine historical narrative, but rather the simulacra of one. It is not insignificant that Bismarkian militarism appropriated Wagnerian opera, which was itself a kind of pastiche of pagan warrior narratives, reconceived as the past primeval history of Germany. Likewise, it is important that Napoleon attempted to portray himself as the heir to Charlemagne.
These collective narratives emerged alongside a distinctly different cognitive shift. In his opus, Sources of the Self, the philosopher Charles Taylor argued that a defining component of modern life was the discovery and construction of the self. For Taylor, the concept of the self is a modern invention, emergent from prior concepts like the soul, but not contiguous with them. My awareness and sense of “Me”, as a fully separate person with a distinct personality, individual tastes and preferences, needing both physical and emotional space only developed fully in the modern era, resulting from a number of technological, economic, political and cultural factors. Over time, there was a notable break from a person existing as a subsumed unit of the group or the body politic, to seeing oneself as a unique being with a one’s own path. From such changes came the creation of literary forms like the novel, focusing around the trials and tribulations of a specific protagonist, with his or her own self-created journey. We discovered what it means, as Virginia Woolf put it, to have “a room of one’s own.”
This emergence however, has been two sided. Having to figure out who I am and what I’m all about is often rife with confusion and anxiety. The ability to be authentic and true to myself, with a distinct place in a universe that will often feel strange or absurd, is a lifelong struggle. Modern liberal democracies provide little guide here, as systems marked by their principled support for a heavily pluralistic individualism. They hold to the idea, as articulated by thinkers like John Stuart Mill, that there is no single “good life” appropriate for everyone, and together with post-Lockean and Kantian liberalism, in the value of each person as a separate end in themselves, owed equal respect and human rights.
As such, liberal democratic states (at least ideally) try to refrain from setting too much prescription on how to live or on whose life is truly of value, believing such judgements should emerge from the appreciation of the many communities that compose it, seeking different goals and interests. Likewise, the heavily associational and multicultural environment of democracy provides a plethora of options. Therefore, it is often very unclear what the “true” hierarchy is, and what kind of recognition society should assign, and to whom. Some people think of professional athletes as extremely important, while others could care less. There are people that love and revere great chefs, or the Pope, or reality tv stars. Still others prefer the writers of dark surrealistic graphic novels, musicians who play melancholic progressive death metal, and Shakespearean actors that wax philosophically in cult science fiction series.
This deep ambiguity about who we should honour can be tremendously unsettling. The fact that modern life is not wholly pre-set makes the work of carving out an existence that is satisfying more difficult, since it is always easier to rest on the winds of forces beyond you to assign value to the world. It thus perhaps unsurprising that modern individualism reached new heights together with the creation of tribal nationalism and populism. And I find it interesting that the libertine 1910’s and 20’s led into the era of fascism in the 30’s and 40’s.
Yet as Taylor alsoreminds us, the idea of the self, the ability to find out where we are, and where we might be, presents a grand opportunity to discover meaning in ways never before possible, and to uncover a deeper sense of what life can offer us. The lack of any guarantee for certain kinds of recognition also comes with the possibility to create new forms of recognition that were never previously available. As Taylor noted in “The Politics of Recognition”, one important idea of the Romantics was the ideal of authenticity, which pushed against certain rationalist Enlightenment trends that dismissed the value of being true to oneself and one’s experiences.
There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.
These social elements of liberalism – the prioritization of understanding oneself, and the possibility for many ways of living, present people with both the ability and the moral necessity of carving their own stories. It leads people toward creating communities that work on their behalf, and to forge relationships that are even more meaningful for having been made by them, rather than for them. In his powerful classic defense of a libertarian minimal state, Robert Nozick emphasized this point as the key inspirational feature of his vision. For Nozick, the deep existential appeal of the minimal state is the opportunity to pursue one’s own ends, in seeking the life that best reflects each person’s own commitments. However, Nozick’s argument can be understood not merely in service of a strictly night-watchman government, but more broadly in the spirit of liberal pluralism. As Nozick writes,
There will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.
Thus, not only are liberal ideals important as a matter of not perpetuating oppression, but also as a matter of enriched living. As John Tomasi argues, liberal institutions (particularly economic ones) are valuable not simply because they address concerns over rights and justice, but also because they present us with opportunities for self-authorship.
A crucial insight here is that recognition and success do not have to be zero sum. There can be, and is, a natural harmony of interests, if only those opportunities are appreciated. The world does not have to be divided, as the fascist philosopher Carl Schmidt would have it, between friends and enemies. Rather, the game of recognition can be played mutually, as a product of living in a civil society with many opportunities for association and collective solidarity. To be great and make significant contributions do not need to come at the expense of others, but as part of a reciprocal process of belonging to different communities that make up a larger body politic. Different relationships can exist in stronger forms within civil associations and local communities. Weaker but nonetheless important connections can exist across the whole of society, with all its different parts. We do not need to feel threatened by the reassignment of recognition, if we make efforts to realize its potential.
I realize that this argument may not appeal to those who do not find this way of living and set of values sufficient. My purpose here is simply to defend against the charge that simply because liberalism is less prescriptive, more dynamic, and in favour of universal dignity, that it lacks a robust message about the possibility of meaning. Noting this is vital, not merely as a matter of abstract philosophy, but as a fighting creed. As liberal societies are increasingly driven by rifts over identity, it is crucial that different paths of meaning are open to people, that they can create lives for themselves that feel valuable and important without being exclusionary. While liberal institutions undoubtedly have a lot of work to do in achieving greater justice for many groups, particularly minority communities, it nonetheless remains a set of social relations that has and can succeed in offering lives of worth for everyone.
Featured image is from Public Domain Pictures