Historical Inevitability as Bad Social Science (and Disastrous Policy): The Short Version

I have to confess that I’m also having a really hard time writing about Francis Fukuyama and the “End of History,” as I promised I was doing many weeks back. I haven’t been precisely idle on the subject, though. Since this is a subject (the processes surrounding social and cultural change) close to my long-time areas of research, I do have a hard time writing anything short on the subject. Everything I’ve started writing has turned into the beginning of a journal article, not a blog post.

So I’m just going to put a stake in the ground and sketch out some of the reasons why I have trouble with Fukuyama and other “historical inevitabilists” (among whom I also include contemporary authors such as Ronald Wright, certain kinds of traditionalist conservatives, as well as most other former-Marxists-turned-neoconservatives). And we’ll see where the discussion goes from there.

In general, the arguments I have trouble with are:

  1. History represents an inevitable progression towards a single, optimal “end state.”
  2. That our current state of political and economic organization (i.e., neoliberal market capitalism and political liberal democracy) is a stable “end point” of the evolution of political and economic systems.

The second argument is less complex to discuss, so I outline my issues with it first. This argument is fairly standard “Whig history” — in other words, the tendency of relatively successful peoples to interpret their current way of life, political organization, or philosophy as representing a pinnacle of achievement. Naturally, we don’t know that #2 is always empirically wrong, because we cannot predict the future. We can, however, remind ourselves of the prevalence of this type of argument throughout history, and how often in the past those who employ this type of reasoning have been wrong. The boy has cried wolf a few too many times for a reasonable person to take such statements at face value.

We can also guard against the implied utopianism of #2 through balanced criticism of the ways in which market capitalism and democracy still harbor and occasionally even foster injustice and inequality — even if they do represent clear improvements on the currently available alternatives. Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom is essentially correct: markets do provide more fertile ground for the growth of liberty than do planned economies. But we need not read Hayek as making a metaphysical, utopian claim, as suggested in argument #2. We still get all of the instrumental benefits of Hayek’s argument if we read him as making a pragmatic claim about the relative benefits of two modes of economic organization. And the instrumental reading does not require us to believe unverifiable claims about the future.

The first argument is a much tougher nut to crack, given its ubiquity and persistence in the history of Western ideas. The idea that human history is governed by a grand pattern, that history has a “purpose” or represents continuous improvement along some dimension, is a very old one. Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument belongs to a class of theories about “universal” history which proposes that human societies develop through a series of ordered, relatively universal “stages”, and are subject to relatively inevitable or sometimes inherent forces which drive them through these stages. Theories that meet these criteria are not new, as Ken Rufo pointed out in his earlier comments. For example, in my own discipline of anthropology, the idea of a progression from “bands” to “tribes” to “chiefdoms” and finally, to “states” (codified by Elman Service in his 1962 book Primitive Social Organization) is emblematic of this type of universalist, unilinear social history. The idea of a fixed “ladder” of evolutionary stages was widespread and explicit in the social science of the 19th century. We see clear examples in the work of August Comte (the father of sociology), Emile Durkheim, and Lewis H. Morgan. Morgan, for example, proposed in Ancient Society that societies uniformly move through three stages, driven by technological progress: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Societies merely differed in the rates at which they progressed through each stage; all societies, in this view, would eventually progress to the “highest” and final stage. This notion was widely adopted by two major groups of social scientists in the mid-nineteenth century: social darwinists (like Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton) and philosophers in the Hegelian tradition (specifically, Marx and Engels).

Schema that organize historical change into universal “stages” of development are traceable even deeper in history than these nineteenth century examples. In Western thought, the ultimate origin of such schemes is a secularization of the classical and medieval theological idea of the scala naturae, or “great chain of being” (note 1). In pre-modern thought about politics and the economy, for example, the chain of being justified the hierarchical structure of monarchical society, the Church, and the economic “caste” status that went along with that hierarchy. Prevalent in European thought until the Renaissance, the scala naturae depicts a universe in which there is a fixed hierarchy of beings, ranging from the “lowliest” up through humans, leading ultimately to the Divine. During the Italian Renaissance we see the secularization of the “chain of being,” but not a fundamental challenge to the notion of a hierarchical schema itself (note 2). This slow secularization ultimately allowed the scala naturae to shed strictly theological connotations and fade into the background of Western thinking concerning the relationship between species, and the relationship between “civilized” Europeans and the Asian, African, and American peoples they encountered on their steadily increasing voyages of discovery. By the time of John Wilkins and the Royal Society, the notion of a chain of being essentially “dissolved” into schemes of scientific classification, leading ultimately and rather directly to the Scottish Enlightenment (e.g., Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith), pre-Darwinian geology and biology (e.g., Linneaus, Buffon), as well as the universalist unilinear schemes of philosophers like Hegel (note 3).

Given the deep tradition of unilinear, stage-based models of universal history, we shouldn’t be surprised to see them cropping up again in contemporary discourse. Nevertheless, one might be led, by their very prevalence, to wonder how so many versions of the same idea could possibly be wrong?

I’m going to claim that the answer is “easily,” but with a caveat. Rejection of universalist, unilinear, stage-based, progressive models of history seems only natural if one has already rejected a few other traditional philosophical doctrines: essentialism and teleology in particular. If one is a philosophical naturalist, and an anti-essentialist, it is difficult to accept teleological accounts of any natural phenomenon, up to and including human behavior. And this is where I’m coming from when I criticize argument #1 (above). I simply do not find teleological accounts of history to be consistent with the rest of my philosophical beliefs.

In addition to my philosophical objections, the true “death knell” for argument #1 for me is the fact that teleological, universalist histories are rarely (if ever) falsifiable. No mechanisms are evident in the scientific sense of the term — for example, what process is causally responsible for driving societies towards democracy and freedom? Hegelians tend to fall back on metaphysical answers to questions like these: innate drives, the “spirit of the age,” or the action of the “dialectic” on the dominant ideas of a particular people. Sadly, no “innate drive” towards democracy, or individual liberty, or even capitalism has yet been detected by neuroscientists or behavioral geneticists, and even anthropologists still argue about the ubiquity and “naturalness” of social phenomena such as inequality. Explanations that invoke chimeras like the “spirit of the age” are worse than scientifically useless; in many ways they represent the secularization of superstition and faith, rather than the search for verifiable knowledge.

But before you claim that the preceding was horribly biased and unfair to a long tradition of philosophers and historians, go back to my caveat above. Given the philosophical commitments with which I start my analysis of universalist histories and folks like Fukuyama and Wright, my rejection of their work follows pretty naturally. If one accepts teleological explanations, and has no problem with Aristotelian essentialism, then my conclusions may seem hasty or wrong, and I want to acknowledge that.

Finally, I want to note that my beef isn’t really with Francis Fukuyama; he’s written some pieces I quite agree with, including his editorial in last week’s New York Times (hmmm…wish I had the URL for it). My problem is really with the survival of ancient, philosophically suspect, inflexible, and ultimately unscientific ways of explaining where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. People the world over, regardless of culture, persist in believing that their current situations have simple explanations that give the events of the day a clear “purpose” within a grander narrative that situates each group in the “center” of their own universal narrative. Narratives that seem to define our current way of life as the “best,” thereby justifying whatever actions we take in protecting and maintaining that way of life, up to and including actions that harm people with other beliefs and customs.

One way we should sense that something is wrong with such narratives, and the philosophies that justify them, is that clearly not everyone can be right about their destiny as the pinnacle of human existence. Isn’t it far more likely that none of us are living a grand narrative, that no group’s fantasies about the direction of history are correct? Isn’t it far more likely that we’re all just living in a history that is ongoing, that is determined precisely by our actions and nothing more?

If my arguments above aren’t convincing, I’ll close by noting that most of the 20th century’s worst atrocities were committed by folks — on the left and the right — who firmly believed in the ultimate rightness and historical inevitability of their actions. Doesn’t it seem clear, just pragmatically, that teleological, inevitabilist views of history are something that the human race can ill afford anymore?

NOTES:

  1. See A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, 1936, Harvard University Press.
  2. For the classic example, see Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has one foot firmly in the Middle Ages and one in Renaissance humanism, accepting the notion of the chain of being, but claiming that humans were specifically created outside the chain and could modify their own proximity to the top of the chain by creating knowledge and exercising moral self-discipline.

    3. I’m glossing over an important, but subsidiary, issue in this post — in an effort to keep my remarks “short” and thus get them posted before virtually everyone gets tired of waiting for me to write something. Prior to the 18th century or so, most “universalist” teleological histories held that humanity was in decline, in keeping with the Biblical notion of the Fall. Today’s dominant teleological narrative, at least in philosophical and historical circles, is progressive in contrast. This switch in the perceived “direction” of history is decidedly an Enlightenment phenomenon, especially the Scottish enlightenment thinkers.

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  • David Airth,

    I didn’t mean to say that 19th century thought is irrelevant to this age. Nor did I use the word. The 20th century couldn’t have been without the 19th century. My sense is that people thing that if thinkers got it wrong about the way the world was heading in the 19th century they would get it wrong in the 20th century. Those people don’t account for the fact that a lot more has flowed under the bridge since the 19th century and there is a lot more activity, knowledge and wisdom to draw from. In other words, I think theories about the direction of the world can be more precise today because there is more information and experience to draw from. In a sense, those people are fighting another war, in another paradigm.

    I am a practical person. So I have bases my ideas on the emergence of liberal democracy as an end point on practical reasons. The world is becoming smaller. Globalization needs a universal system to function properly. That universal system is liberal democracy. Perhaps liberal democracy will evolve into something else. But what ever its is it will have to be similar in its logic and function, in order to hold the world together. We have international institutions like the U.N., WTO. which function best under a common system. That common system has materialized as liberal democracy. For better of for worse it best services the needs and aspirations of the world. To my mind, institutions like the U.N. have necessitated and helped direct the world to a common system.

    As I said, I have been reading “The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. I said, that as I read it the thought came to me that this legacy is tied to the ascendency of liberal democracy. In many respects the needs and aspiration, the individualism of boomers is found in the narrative of liberal democracy. In principle the boomers needs an aspirations are hard to argue with. The author told me that he had the Hegel/Fukuyama theory in the back of his mind as he wrote his book.

  • Mark,

    Popper isn’t an easy read, definitely, but well worth it in my personal opinion. Rorty isn’t easy either but also one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. As is Daniel Dennett.

    In some ways you can really figure out where I’m coming from by putting the following folks together: Darwin + Daniel Dennett + Popper + Wilfrid Sellars equal a strong picture of a naturalist, non-essentialist, pro-scientific view of the world, and the methodological problems involved in trying to create testable knowledge about that world.

    Then, entirely disconnected from that first set of thinkers, is a discussion about *what we choose as free people to DO with our freedom in the world*. And here, my views run along the lines of Dennett + Rorty + Orwell + bits of Locke, Jefferson, Madison and later liberal theorists like Dewey — but not Kantian or natural law folks.

    On another subject, and then I have a meeting to run off to, I would like to point out that your last comment is quite interesting in the juxtaposition of the first two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, you say how much you really like Robert Wright’s book Nonzero. In the second paragraph, you say you don’t understand why I keep alluding to 19th century thought, and you say you think such thinking is irrelevant to the modern world.

    Here’s why I keep alluding to the 19th century and flaws in 19th century cultural evolution. Robert Wright’s book is a contemporary summary of 19th century cultural evolution, from the first chapter to the final appendix #2. If you like Robert Wright, you’re essentially right in sync with much of 19th century thought on social change. He begins the book with Lewis Henry Morgan, and his “ladder” of stages of civilization, and ends the book with Leslie White’s universal metric (energy capture) for defining cultural complexity. This is why I focused much of my original post in talking about these ideas and their intellectual heritage — very very few anthropologists and scholars agree with this stuff anymore, regardless of how intuitive it sounds.

    Such ideas have been kept alive, as Wright notes, largely by archaeologists and some anthropologists, mostly associated with the University of Michigan. Nonzero is pretty much written entirely from this perspective, and Wright has few other good things to say about the entire rest of the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, especially since they long ago rejected the arguments he’s trying to revive.

    And with all due respect for Wright’s talents as a journalist and popular science author, his knowledge of modern anthropology is sorely lacking. This is pretty apparent when you look at the stuff he’s citing — Robert Carneiro’s studies in the 1960’s have seen immense amounts of discussion, criticism, rework, etc, in the following decades, but Wright presents Carneiro’s work as if it represents the current state of our knowledge. The same thing applies to his use of Raoul Naroll’s cross-cultural studies, and especially to his use of Leslie White’s framework for unilineal evolution.

    A good comparison here would be to write a book today, discussing biology and DNA, but fail to mention genome sequencing or any discoveries after the 1970’s. The picture one paints of biology would be hopelessly outdated and frankly, wrong from a current perspective. And while you may be in sympathy with Wright’s overall point and philosophy, at the level of evidence and detailed arguments, that’s precisely what he’s done.

    Again, in criticizing Wright, I hope you understand I’m not critizing you in any way. I enjoy our discussions but since this is a field that I actually have a great deal of background in, I wanted to set some context for why I’ve picked on him in this series of posts and comments.

  • David Airth,

    I have tried to read Popper but find he talks in circles. I find him wanting. I like Robert Wright’s book “Nonzero”. He is my kind of thinker.

    To equate 19th century European history to todays thinking is saying that nothing has changed in the annals of history. I can’t accept that. This is a different world from 19th century mentality. The 19th century was immature in comparison. It lacked the skills. It lacked the experience. It lacked the references. However, Hegel was smart in basing his world theory of change. No one can deny that change isn’t most responsible for how our world is.

    Talking about books, I am reading “The Greater Generation” by Leonard Steinhorn. Now here is a generation that not only changed America but the world. I am beginning to see a parallel with this generation and the ascendency of liberal democracy.

  • Mark,

    To see where historical inevitability comes into play, you need to look at the intellectual history behind folks like Fukuyama. As I tried to outline in my original post, his arguments come from a long line of folks (like Hegel) that see history as directional, and having end goals. Just because he doesn’t say it directly doesn’t mean this isn’t the basis of his arguments or the lineage within which those ideas grew. A book I’d strongly recommend on this point is Sir Karl Popper’s “The Poverty of Historicism,” which is specifically a philosophical critique of universal history and teleological approaches to history (which Popper calls “historicism” but modern scholars call a variety of other terms as well).

    The reason I keep referring to the broader category of ideas here, instead of focusing specifically on Fukuyama, is that he’s merely one example. Think about Robert Wright’s “Nonzero” — another book with a heavy dosage of the idea that history has a discernible and almost goal-directed trend towards a specific form. These ideas crop up over and over again because they express something pretty strong in the history of Western ideas. But that doesn’t mean they’re good or useful ideas, as Ken and I have variously pointed out. Much of the history of Europe prior to the 19th century, in fact, was a chronicle of folks killing each other because each side was convinced of the rightness and inevitability of their individual viewpoints. The Thirty Years War is a great example.

    Well, I’m basically repeating myself at this point so I’m going to just move on – it’s been a good discussion. I do recommend the Popper book strongly.

    Your second and third paragraphs are interesting and I have things to say, but they overlap pretty strongly with what I have to say on the granularity of our ideas about politics and economics, so I’m going to save them for my next full posting. Back to work for me….

  • David Airth,

    Mark, I think you are too rapped up in thinking ‘inevitability’. No body said that liberal democracy is inevitable. What Fukuyama said is that if you start of on a certain path and expect certain things, like continuing prosperity, individual freedoms and the science and technology to support it all, then liberal democracy is our best bet and the most likely olccurrance. Perhaps there is an inevitability in there in that if one is on a specific trajectory one has to have a specific capsule. The trajectory of the modern world, of human rights, personal recognition and freedom, choices, prosperity, peace, interdependence, along with our having to comply with the imperatives of nature and it expense, implies that liberal democracy is the best way go.

    I think if there is an alternative it will be a variation of liberal democracy. Many scholars are upset that no new alternatives have been discovered since the end of the Cold War. In many respects what we have today is a combination of the last two rivals who both set out to do the same thing, bring universal recognition and freedom to humankind. Liberal democracy has the best chance of doing that. Never in recent history have we been left without a visible alternative. That must mean something.

    Are you suggest that liberal democracy is shutting out alternatives. Some people think communism wasn’t give a proper chance.

  • Mark,

    Well, like I said, I think we’ll have to simply agree to disagree on this. Basically, what I find unconvincing is that I see no reasons given, either by you or Fukuyama, for the statement that there are no viable alternatives. What I see instead is just that claim, often repeated, as if it is either (1) a self-evident feature of the world, or (2) simply true by definition. In other words, it smells to me very much like a pure article of faith, believed but not justified or verified.

    And, at root, this is where we differ — I’m simply not prepared to accept a justification for democracy and capitalism that smells a heck of a lot like religious faith, secularized — and that comes with little or no real justification other than the wishful thinking of the author. But that’s precisely what I see in Hegelian, historical inevitabilist philosophies about history.

  • David Airth,

    I don’t see liberal democracy as an absolute but rather the final framework, with defining principles, in which the organization and governance of the develop world is possible. There is room for variations. But if the develop world wants to remain developed, I don’t think, as Fukuyama thinks, there are any alternatives to this combination. If it is an absolute it is absolute for the moment and one that is always in flux, constantly reaffirming and consummating itself.

  • Mark,

    Another quick comment…

    Ken – yes, we’re saying roughly the same thing, and I think we definitely agree. You said it very directly, and without all the verbosity. :)

    David – two things. First, Fukuyama definitely has a set of theoretical commitments, and isn’t quite a “neutral” observer. We all do, at some level, but as an academic political scientist his (and other academically inclined folks like Ken and I) will be much more sharply defined, easy to figure out, and clear-cut. This isn’t a bad thing at all, because in fact having them out in the open (i.e., in the form of references to people he agrees with, footnotes, etc) others (like me) can see whether we agree or not. I try to do the same thing in my posts — indicate the philosophical commitments inherent in my arguments, because as I said in my original post, a reader is more likely to find my arguments convincing if they’re generally amenable to certain schools of thought than, for example, if they’re a serious student of Straussian political philosophy, are a committed essentialist, etc. I expect some readers to resonate with my arguments, and others to disagree.

    As for my second point, I started this post by questioning anyone’s commitment to absolutes — that we know that democracy is absolutely stable, or absolutely the best system, etc, and I’ll end the same way. When you say “there are only certain ways you can ultimately govern humankind in its predisposition.” I question the certainty behind this statement.

    What I’d say, and what caused me to think critically in the first place about theories like Fukuyama’s “end of history”, is simply the idea that we *can* know the complete range of ways in which it’s possible to govern humankind. We may agree to disagree on this point, of course, since we have different perspectives.

    But for my part, I simply see plenty of evidence that every time we conclude that we’ve exhausted all the possibilities or that we can enumerate all of the “certain ways” in which human social relations can work themselves out, the future always — always — proves us wrong in our certainty.

    The science fiction writer Charles Stross wrote, not too long ago:

    “The sheer speed with which change swept over the twentieth century, bearing us all towards some unseen crescendo, was a tonic for the imagination. Science fiction wouldn’t have flourished in an earlier era — it took a time of change, when children growing up with horse-drawn carriages woudl fly around the world on jet engines, to make plausible the dreams of continuous progress that this genre is based on. But the pace of change isn’t slackening. If anything, it’s accelerating; the coming century is going to destroy futures even faster than the last one created them.”

    Stross’s words ring true for me well beyond the realm of speculative fiction writing. His point is equally emblematic of the pace of change in society in general, and if anything, the rapidity of change is destroying the predictions of social scientists even faster than we can create them.

    My point, ultimately, is simply to ask: how, in such a world can we be sure we really *do* know all the possible alternatives for how to organize and govern ourselves? Instead of drawing comfort in the certainty that we know the full spectrum of the possible, I personally draw inspiration from the thought that, in fact, we *aren’t* stuck with only those options bequeathed to us by the previous century and its troubles.

    In terms that derive directly from Richard Rorty, liberal democracy does, in fact, mean to me that we are all free to figure out for ourselves how we’d like society to work, and make our best pitch to our fellow citizens in an effort to create the change we’d like to see. Sometimes that will involve patching what we currently have, sometimes it’ll involve coming up with a whole new set of requirements and building a system that meets them.

    Off to bed…I have early meetings. My next set of posts will likely start focusing on the “granularity” issue I mentioned a couple of comments back. Talk to y’all soon.

  • David Airth,

    When I listen to you guys I feel like a babe in the woods. No really. But I think of myself as I bystander watching the world go by. And I see certain trends and developments. To the best of my knowledge I am not being judgmental, bias or political about them. I think this was Fukuyama’s approach in his end of history theory. If he had done his theorizing with blinkers on, with a personal ideology, he would have to discredit himself just like I would of myself if I acted that way. There is no point in pursuing a broad theory if one hasn’t tried to included everything possible. I think Fukuyama took most everything into consideration when he developed his theory.

    Fukuyama’s theory is based on a realization that is responsible for liberal democracy’s ascendency and communism’s collapse. That realization is a child of the enlightenment, that there is only certain ways you can ultimately govern humankind in it predisposition, so as to fulfill its needs and aspirations. Of the two remaining alternative, fighting it out to see who would carry out the ultimate duty, liberal democracy won because it had what it takes to meet humankind’s needs and aspirations in the modern world.

    One point of friction is, what about those who don’t fit in or don’t want to fit into the scheme of things.

  • You and I are saying *roughly* similar things. I like liberal democracy, but I don’t believe in anything resembling an end-state or ultimate evolutionary form for liberal democracy. These claims lead invariably to horrific outcomes. And these outcomes don’t obtain simply because the good ideas of folks like Fukuyama were “hijacked” by malfeasants; they are intrinsic to the ideas themselves, and Fukuyama, like the others who have made similar arguments, should be held strictly accountable, not given a free pass because, 10 years later, they realized that their ideas might have led to (predictable) horrific consequences and have the guts to pen a pseudo act of contrition.

  • Mark,

    A very short note (unusual for me!) before I begin the long trek home from Microsoft…

    I definitely think your point, David, about the flexibility of unplanned economies is a good one. This is basically what Hayek tried to point out in his classic The Road to Serfdom. And despite the purposes to which Hayek gets put to by the right, it’s important for those of us on the left to acknowledge the ways in which Hayek was correct about the inflexibility and “hooks” for tyranny that command economies have built in. This is a key reason why the “traditional” Marxist left lacks credibility today — not because the left failed to identify an important problem, but because the solution set they proposed (whether in authoritarian Bolshevik form or more decentralized democratic form) turned out to be a cure that was *at least* as bad as the disease it tried to cure, and occasionally turned out much, much worse.

    But there is a steady and subtle trend occuring which is trying to discredit the left’s identification of the *problem* as valid, now that leftist solutions have largely fallen by the wayside. And what Ken points out, I think, is that the job of identifying how liberal democracy can solve the *problem* of widening unfairness and inequality within a market economy only becomes harder if we consider “capitalism” and “liberal democracy” to be virtually untouchable ideals that aren’t subject to criticism or deconstructive analysis.

    Sure, market economics and liberal democracy are the “platform” upon which much of the “relatively free world” runs, but let’s be honest about how large the bug list still is. And whether we can dream up a couple of patches, or even a good Service Pack, to make market-based liberal democracy run even better. Because if we just bury the bug list and act like it doesn’t exist, we have to remember that somebody *still* benefits, but it isn’t all of us.

    Or maybe that’s not quite what Ken was pointing out, but I suppose it *is* what I’m claiming. Or maybe both of us are claiming it. :)

    Alright, more later. That wasn’t as short a comment as I’d intended, but I do tend towards verbosity. Talk to you guys later.

  • David, it’s already been and done learnt. It was called structural adjustment, and it gutted the economies of Africa and Central and Southern America. It’s why the so-called “Washington Connection” is increasingly a political rallying cry, one that has been successfully used in mobilizing 4 now socialist governments. To think that the West has some finger on the pulse of the truth of economics is absurd, because every time we export that truth we screw over massive amounts of people in the consescendingly-named developing world. And the record isn’t just bad abroad: under a liberal democratic flexible economic order, this country now has 12.7% of its population living under the poverty line – that’s 37 million Americans – at the same time that the U.S. holds the world record for billionaires (296). One can hardly make the case, empirically, that this is the best possible world. And acting as if time will continue to show this is exactly the sort of eschatological gloss on history that routinely encourages mass slaughter and expropriations.

    Communism might have been built on an illusion, but so was Enron, which at one time was considered the exemplar of the good capitalist corporation.

    Capitalist economies are good at one thing and one thing only: the distribution of goods and services. To act as if the political valence of this distribution is inherent within the efficiency of the distribution itself is to ignore a veritable host of malfeasance and a history of savage inequality.

  • David Airth,

    I am tempted to answer your need for proof that liberal democracy is the best system of human governance and economics by saying that the “proof is in the pudding”. But I know that will not put it to rest. I think more of it will have to pass under the ‘bridge’ before the skepticism can be brushed aside.

    Mark, you make many good points, leaving me in the dust. So I will only take up one point, planned vs unplanned economies. I don’t consider liberal democracy as the host of unplanned economics. Why it won out over communist economics is not because it is unplanned but flexible in its planning. That behavior requires a lot of sophistication, a sophistication communism lacked. Communism was far too planned and rigid, thus inflexible and thus incapable of dealing with the economic changes that the world hurled at it. At its core communism was static, incapable of change. Economics is about constant change and flux, about deterioration and renewal. Communism inherently couldn’t cope with such dynamics.

    Economics is not just a willy nilly thing. It requires and has solid principles. Most of it has been developed and learnt empirical over a long period of time in the West. These sound principle are now finding their way around the world. Communism tried to circumvent these principle by manipulating its market and fabricating them. Communist economics didn’t reflect the true nature of reality and what was available. It distorted its economic activity. It cheated when its goals weren’t met. It lacked the feedback system that could have rejuvenated it, because it discouraged competition and dissent. In a way communism’s economic nature and activity sounds a bit like Enron’s, built on illusion.

    I am also enjoying this exchange.

  • mark,

    I absolutely agree that economics is a determinant of life. In many ways, what we call “economics” is a specialized form of “ecology” — both study the ways in which organisms make a living and use resources. “Economics” is simply the study of how one species — us — uses fairly complex forms of material exchange in order to provision ourselves with resources. A superb study of the isomorphism between ecology/biology and economics is Geerat Vermeij’s recent book called “Nature: An Economic History” (here’s the Amazon URL: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0691115273/sr=8-1/qid=1141150435/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-5857407-3959137?%5Fencoding=UTF8)

    Vermeij is a top-notch paleontologist, who has specialized in the study of ecological relationships through deep evolutionary time, especially “arms races” between species which result in the exploitation of new ecological niches (in other words, economic relations). So his study of the relationship between economics and evolutionary ecology starts right at the level you’re discussing — it’s all about the maintenance of life, whether we’re talking mollusks filtering nutrients out of water or people farming corn, or corporations selling product. An excellent book.

    Nevertheless, I think you’re still making a leap I’m not willing to make. The mere fact that economics/ecological relationships are utterly fundamental to life doesn’t mean that any *specific form* of economic relationships are “natural” or “inevitable.” The comparison between “planned economies” (I’m not using “communism” because it can mean a bunch of different things – am trying to be precise) and “unplanned economies” is a very recent one.

    Just because one economic system won and the other lost (which of course I agree with) is insufficient evidence, in my book, that the winner (1) is absolutely better than all possible alternatives, (2) is inevitably the winner in such conflicts with alternative systems. Both of these claims — made explicitly by Fukuyama, by Hayek, and at least implicitly in your comments — simply don’t follow quite that easily from your initial premise.

    What I’m getting at is that in both of your comments, and our previous discussions on the topic, you seem to be making the following argument (in outline):

    (1) Planned economies competed against unplanned market economies for much of the 20th century and lost due to inefficiency.

    (2) Unplanned market economies are the only ones left standing today.

    (3) Therefore, unplanned market economies will continue to win forever against all challengers.

    (4) Because unplanned market economies will always win against any challenger, they represent an ideal “end state” of economic development from which a population will likely not deviate once attained.

    I agree with steps (1) and (2) in the argument above; both are relatively simple empirical observations (actually, the “simplicity” of (1) is not really clear — inefficiency is certainly one causal factor in the collapse of the actual planned economies of the Soviet bloc, but only one).

    Step (3) is where I start to disagree. Not because I think it’s necessarily incorrect — it may in fact *turn out* to characterize much of our future history. I disagree because I simply don’t see a way to demonstrate or prove — or *disprove the opposite* of this statement.

    First of all, how can we possibly assume that “capitalism” and “communism” exhaust the space of “all possible alternatives” for ways to organize an economic system? We *know* historically that market economies often co-existed with various types of reciprocal or redistributionist economies, just looking at classical history through the present (Rome, Egypt, certain Near Eastern civilizations). We also have plenty of ethnographic evidence that very stable long-term economies existed among Native Americans which involved some trade (i.e., simple form of market exchange) but also a great deal of reciprocity and redistribution (e.g., potlatching).

    We also know that “market exchange” is a very big and broad category, and simply calling it all “capitalism” masks a huge range of ways to organize such an economy (this will be the subject of a future post on “granularity” of our concepts, by the way…). Are all ways of organizing a market-exchange economy equally powerful, equally conducive to liberty, equally superior to non-market system? This is the type of question I think is far more interesting, and far more relevant to political deliberation, than the claim that our way of life is inherently superior and will end all further innovation in economics and politics — which is precisely the kind of non-verifiable, boastful claim that I take Fukuyama and his former neo-con buddies as making.

    The *long* view of history, instead of focusing just on the period from 1917 through 1989, would tend to demonstrate (at least to me), that technical and organizational innovation has continually disrupted any and all notions humans beings have had that a particular way of life would be either permanent, inevitable, or the “best” of all possible worlds. And that we’d be fools if we thought our current way of life — regardless of its benefits right now, many of which I agree with — could possibly represent something eternal and inevitable, considering how many times in the past people who have believed that have been utterly surprised at “what came next.”

    I’m enjoying this conversation greatly…thanks for writing back!

  • David Airth,

    That is an excellent challenge, Mark, to show that economics is an “a priori” and the determinant of life. Let me try, in a modest way.

    I have concluded that “maintenance” is the foremost concern in life. If we don’t constantly maintain things, they fall apart, including ourselves. Maintenance includes the growing of food to the discovery of new resources. Maintenance has become more imperative in this modern world because of its faster pace. Economics is the discipline of maintenance, the only one. Maintenance can not be accomplished by any other means but by economic ones.

    At moments like this I think of the movie “The Graduate” and a sage saying to our hero “plastics”, like that’s where it’s at. I would have said “maintenance”, that’s where its at. However, maintenance isn’t as glamorous as plastics. Yet it is the largest industry in the world.

    Communism ultimately collapsed because its economic system was lousy at maintenance and paying for it. I would say that maintenance, or the lack of it, was what ultimately did in communism.

    Ten years after he wrote “The End Of History” Fukuyama wrote a “Second Thoughts” article. He said he still believed in most of what he said, but that history would not end until science ended. I found that interesting because science is where much of our maintenance technology comes from and is renewed. So when humankind no longer needs to maintain itself or needs science to help do so, then it will be the end of history. And what affords scientific development? Economics.

  • Mark,

    Thanks for the comments. It’s going to take a couple of comment posts from me to respond, because my day is chopped up into small pieces. I’ll start, however, with a comment on one aspect of David’s reply. Oh, and I’ll note that my ref to Fukuyama’s “recent editorial” is the same one that David mentions at the beginning of his comment. I did think it was a good piece.

    But let’s return to the issue of mechanism. I certainly don’t disagree that with you, David, that Francis Fukuyama has had strong effects on the nature of the arguments we see within the field of international relations, by reinforcing the notion of democracy as a universal form of governance. But let’s be clear about what this is — a rhetorical position — and what it’s not — a testable claim about how human societies actually change and evolve.

    I certainly have no problem with the former. Since my personal philosophical leanings tend to run in the direction of the pragmatists and certain philosophers of science (Dennett, Rorty, aspects of Dewey, Sellars), I definitely agree with the importance of opening up new lines of rhetoric about governance within the public sphere. I think it’s quite healthy for a people to discuss whether democracy (in any of its forms) is the best way to govern themselves, and how this relates to economic relations, cultural values, and so on. Heck, none of us would be here spending precious time discussing this stuff if we didn’t believe in the power of deliberative forms of social life.

    Where I differ is that I draw a firm line (that I don’t see in your arguments) between “beliefs” and rhetorical stances — on the one hand, and empirical claims about the world on the other hand. The former are valuable even if they just make us think, if they open up new avenues of discussion, and even if they merely describe *possible* worlds, instead of the actual world we live in.

    The latter, on the other hand, are valuable only if they describe the *actual* world, and the mechanisms and processes which cause change in the world. Add falsification and you essentially have something like the “scientific method” (although this is a bit of an oversimplification).

    And while I accept the value of Fukuyama’s work as rhetorical stance, as a stimulus to democratic discussion about what is *desirable*, and as an exploration of a modern version of a very old idea (historical inevitability), I do not think his ideas go further than rhetorical claims.

    You say that democracy has “legitimately reached the top, empirically.” What does this mean? What evidence can followers of Fukuyama produce that would convince a skeptic that no further innovation in political organization will occur? Getting to Ken’s point, can we even demonstrate, theoretically or empirically, that liberal democracy is stable over long time periods — what mathematicians would refer to as a “stable attractor” in the space of possible types of governance?

    I certainly grant you that *recent* human history demonstrates a competitive arms race between two forms of *economic* organization (not political), with central planned economies demonstrably losing out to market economies over a 50 year period, due to the huge inefficiencies involved in central planning.

    Incidentally, at a rhetorical level my opinion is that political organization is *partially* related to this, not wholly — in other words we’ve only seen *two* boxes in the matrix of possibilities: democracy/market and authoritarian/planned. One suspects that democracy/planned would fare poorly in competition with democracy/market simply given the efficiency arguments, and it seems like there are examples of authoritarian/market that are fairly successfully (at least at an economic level, and at least on short terms). The real question from Fukuyama’s perspective is whether we can demonstrate the absolute superiority of democracy/market over the long term, such that even relatively successful authoritarian/market systems don’t keep up, while the democratic/market system retains its stability and viability.

    From a rhetorical and personal standpoint, I’m absolutely with you — I certainly *hope* democracy/market is stable and viable over the long term. I certainly do see it as better than any available alternative (at least at the level of granularity we’re discussing — more in a future post on the “granularity” issue).

    Where I strongly disagree is that I simply do not see any warrant, empirically or philosophically, to claim that democracy and market economies are *a priori* superior, are “inevitable” in any sense, or will be “final” end states of human social organization from which we will not change over historical time.

    If you do see mechanisms which create the kind of long-term historical stability and persistence for democracy/markets that Fukuyama claims, I’d love to see them described in more detail.

    More comments later — my next topic is likely going to examining the “granularity” of what we mean when we talk about “Democracy” and “Capitalism” and how the “big capital letter” versions of these concepts, bandied about so readily by Fukuyama and other inheritors of Aristotelian essentialism, really mask a lot of variation. And I’ll argue, in typical post-Darwinian fashion, that the variability is where all the interesting “action” is.

  • Good post. I think it explains why David might be a bit more cautious in his belief about the end-state viability of liberal democracy. Let me add that fascism is predicated on liberal democracy as its precondition and not its opposite, and one of the dangerous components of believing we’ve reached the end of political evolution (at least within modernity – btw, are we still in modernity? I think no), is that we very poorly guard against fascist mobilizations. I should also point out, for those following events in the Phillipines or Latin America, that much of the mass political mobilizations there are expressly tied to pro-communist reworkings of democracy, reworkings that have nuances we would miss if we simply attempted to shove them all under the liberal democracy label.

  • David Airth,

    Mark, did you read Fukuyama’s article in The New York Magazine, After Neoconservatism?

    Fukuyama has had a falling out with his necon brothers. He thinks they have over reached in Iraq. In his article he does not mention the possible hubris and misconception his “end of history” thesis gave neocons. However, neocons may have been embolden by his theory, thinking they had the right to throw America’s weight around in establishing global hegemony.

    Fukuyama came up with a worthy and legitimate theory. But like with most ideas put out by philosophers it has been hijacked and twisted by individuals – neocons – for their own self-interest. The trouble is, neocons are shallow thinkers who don’t delve into the deeper meaning of things. And as we see they have screwed things up because of their lack of insight. They are typical MBAers (Bush, for example) who think that they can correct or fix the world with a few little twists.

    There is a lot more to be said about this. Fukuyama has opened up an new field of thinking and philosophizing that has only just recently come to our attention. He has really reintroduced a philosophical debate about universal human governance and what shape it should take, and how to implement it.

    My feeling is that liberal democracy is an end point in human governance, as Fukuyama opines. In history I have seen a process of elimination in how humankind ought to be governed universally. The last two rival were liberal democracy and communism. Communism now has collapses, leaving only one alternative. Some scholars have grumbled that no new system has emerged from that rivalry. But to my way of thinking there is not alternative to liberal democracy in modernity. For me, it has legitimately reached the top, empirically.

    The Hegelian scholar Kojeve believed that communism and democracy were in the same business, in determining how humankind should be ultimately organized and governed. With communism’s collapse the job was completed. In his article “Painting the White House Red” John Laughland essentially confirms this conclusion. He writes that the Bush administration has been acting in a way communism once did, talking about a universal governance. That universal governance will be run by liberal democratic principles.