Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populism signal the end of liberal hegemony in the West. Our political task must be to reject narratives of inevitable progress and build a democratic common good.
by Jonathan Rutherford
Taken together, the financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, Trump, the rise of populism, all signal the end of a period of liberal hegemony in the West.
Thirty years ago in the summer of 1989 the American conservative Francis Fukuyama inaugurated the liberal era in an essay called ‘The End of History?’ What appears to be an extraordinary question led to an international debate about the future of Western civilisation. Fukuyama surveyed the state of the world and pointed out that of the two threats to liberal democracy, fascism had been destroyed and communism was exhausted.
‘What we may be witnessing’ wrote Fukuyama, ‘is not the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.1
The victory of liberalism had occurred primarily in the realm of human consciousness. It was incomplete in the material world. But Fukuyama, drawing on the ideas of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, believed that human behavior is rooted in a prior state of consciousness. Liberalism would be the ideal that would govern the material world in the long run. A new historic stage of global capitalism had emerged, establishing a new consensus around liberal market values and a free market economy.
In England this new model of capitalism was already well advanced. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government created an economy that marked a return to the liberal cosmopolitanism and free trade of the Edwardian era. By 1992 a governing consensus was opening up national economies and integrating them into increasingly global markets. Clinton’s New Democrats were preaching a progressive politics combining economic liberalism with socially liberal values. His Presidency embarked on the construction of a market driven globalisation.
In 1996 Tony Blair, now leader of rebranded New Labour, and Gerhard Schroeder, the Chancellor of Germany, signed a joint declaration of European social democracy. The progressive politics of the British Third Way and the German Die Neue Mitte would unite together in a progressive century. 2 Change was a virtue and an unstoppable force. Capitalism was being liberated from the constraining power of national democracy. There was fresh impetus for the integration of the European Union.
Fukuyama’s theory was proving correct. The liberal right of a transpartisan elite controlled the sphere of the economy. Its liberal left controlled culture. A new professional middle class had come of age in the cultural revolution of the Sixties and became the vehicle of progressive politics. Journalists, school teachers, university lecturers, public relations experts, opinion formers, lawyers, media communicators, and public sector professionals formed an expanded cultural and cognitive elite. Its class power lay in its role of arbiter of cultural taste, interpreter of national interests, and its control of the institutions of media, learning and culture. The sociologist Alvin Gouldner described it in glowing terms as the inheritor of the Enlightenment legacy of universal civilizing progress.3
The growth of the professional middle class and liberal progressive politics in the metropolitan cities and university towns coincided with the decline of the industrial working class, craft work and industrial collectivism. The restructuring of class and economy within Western national territories by state policy and global market forces dispossessed the working class of political power. Its political representation, mutual organisations and forms of solidarity either collapsed or were considerably weakened.
Globalisation was not only liberalizing the economy and society. It was also reconstructing the spatial dimensions of capitalism. The provinces, the ‘peripheral’ spaces within cities, the urban hinterlands and ex-industrial regions were reduced to economic backwaters. Here, poverty and chronic illness grew. Longevity fell. Educational achievement and opportunity fell. High streets became the symbol of decline as they turned into boarded up rows of obsolete shops. These areas reacted against the concentration of cultural, economic and political power in the cities. Many voters, disenfranchised by the gentrification of Labour either stopped voting or turned to populism.
The radical right with its nationalist sentiments was adept at harnessing the anger and despair. The binary of them against us was constructed into the people against the privileged liberal elites of the metropolitan cities. Labour was hostile to populism. The defence of local culture, the need for a sense of belonging and the self-reliance and pride found in work did not chime with its own liberal cosmopolitan culture.
Twenty five years ago in 1995, when the Clinton Democrats were booming, Christopher Lasch issued a prescient warning about progressive politics and its world of ‘limitless possibility’. ‘Once it was the ‘revolt of the masses’ that was held to threaten social order and the civilising traditions of Western culture. In our time however the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses.’4 But the problem of progressive politics is not its slips into illiberalism or simply one of bad faith and moral hypocrisy.
The meaning of progressive politics is founded in the philosophy that inspired Fukuyama to write The End of History?. Hegel believed that humankind has progressed through a series of stages of consciousness corresponding to different forms of society such as tribal and slave owning, up to our present day democratic egalitarianism. History is the unfolding of human development toward its culmination in an absolute moment of rational knowledge. In this final state of completion human beings become at one with themselves and each other.
Marx had used Hegels philosophy of history to explain the coming of his communist utopia. Fukuyama wanted it to explain the inevitability of liberal democracy. He turned to a relatively unknown French philosopher called Alexandre Kojeve whose interpretation of Hegel has been a defining influence on a generation of twentieth century left wing intellectuals. Kojeve argued that the French Revolution and its principles marked the beginning of the liberal democratic state and so the end of history. From that founding moment onward all conflicts of classes and nations, wars, struggles for power, and political events in general, were working toward the absolute moment of what he called ‘the universal and homogenous state’; an undifferentiated global community of humanity.5
But Kojeve is Napoleonic in his understanding of the nation state. To be politically viable it must be part of an imperial union of nations. ‘The modern State’ he wrote, ‘is only truly a State if it is an Empire’.6 What matters is world humanity freed of conflict and injustice. But the political idea of humanity is still only an abstraction, and internationalism no more than utopian. To move from the particularity of nationhood to a condition of global humanity must be via the transnational political unity of empire. The historical agency for this transition lies in the rational state and its bureaucracy. Kojeve put his philosophy into practice by working for the EEC, his empire in the making.
The philosophy which defines history as moving through its own laws toward a global humanity has shaped the beliefs of generations of left wing intellectuals. It has given progressive politics its certitude and a belief in its own moral rightness. But there is now a disenchantment with this idea of progress.
The militant reaction amongst the middle class against the vote to leave the EU is evidence of a growing insecurity.7 The baby boomer generation escaped the first wave of globalisation and economic restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s. But its adult children have not. They face a global competition in graduate talent, as well as the redundancy of professional tasks by the new technologies of AI. They have not had the benefits of free higher education and a generous welfare state. The housing market is beyond their reach and jobs have become more precarious. The status of cognitive work has declined. Younger middle class generations can no longer expect the professional autonomy or economic security of their parents. The ascent of the professional middle class has slowed and the idea of progress has lost its sense of inevitability.
In concluding his essay Fukuyama admits the end of history is a very sad time.8As conflicts of interest end, the political realm as the site of contestation and antagonism ceases to exist. The daring, courage, imagination and idealism of struggle and conflict are replaced by a managerial politics of economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. Rules and regulations take precedence over democratic argument. The condition of human completion brings with it the demise of the uniqueness of individual particularity. The searching, striving, desiring, suffering, historical individual human being dissolves into undifferentiated humanity.
Fukuyama was wrong. There is no end of history because there are no laws of history that lead to human perfection and the rule of universal humanity. Change is not always an improvement on existing arrangements. Human life is transitory and dependent upon forces greater than our own selves. To have force and meaning in the world, human life must be organised into a political community.
The political defines our human social existence. Politics is about putting words into action. Action comes out of defining the conflict of interests that estrange individuals from one another, and then forging relationships through dialogue and negotiation toward a common good. The outcome is not ordained. Nothing can be guaranteed. There is never a final absolute moment, only the ongoing of difference, conflict and reconciliation.
The vote to leave the EU was won by an English coalition of the ex-industrial areas and the Tory Shires. It was a rejection of the liberal market settlement. Its economic losers were a part of a democratic victory over its economic winners. While the governing class across both major parties remains wedded to progressive ideology, the trans-partisan alliance of liberal market economics and progressive morality is politically bankrupt. It can no longer explain the world nor provide a political and moral compass. Neither political party are yet capable of an alternative, but there is the opportunity to recover a democratic politics of the common good. The task is to remake the political community of a democratic nation in multi-ethnic England. On this political battleground the future character of the country will be decided.