I remember the way that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified his achievement of gender parity in his Cabinet with the glib little line, ’because it’s 2015’. 2016 was unquestionably a terrible year for history, and Trudeau’s statement now seems endearingly naff. The rise of right-wing populism is so well detailed that it doesn’t need to be further explicated here. Brexit, the Philippines’ election of Rodrigo Duterte and the defeat of Italian Prime Minister Mattio Renzi’s constitutional referendum marked the decline of the old world order and a resurgence of insular nationalism and populism. For many of us, the US election of 8 November was the apogee of a year of regressions. Historical progress implies directionality, and 2016 was a leap into the dark as far as human history is concerned.
The events of 2016 should have us reaching back into the past for answers. To find out how both the Left and the mainstream Right got history so unfathomably wrong, we should delve into previous conceptions of historical progress. Attempts to create a philosophical teleology, present in Jewish and Christian religious narratives, became secularised from the Renaissance onwards. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel was one of the first thinkers to create a coherent narrative of historical progress, particularly in his collected Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Many people’s familiarity with Hegel will come from Francis Fukuyama’s much-derided 1989 essay ‘The End of History’ and his subsequent book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama, sometimes unfairly characterised as ‘pop-Hegel’, saw liberal democracy as the teleological end point of history. Hegel and Fukuyama’s readings of historical progress can be distinguished from the economic determinism of Marx (himself best conceptualised as a Left-Hegelian) and the English liberal tradition of Hobbes and Locke. For both Hegel and Fukuyama, it was the non-material ‘spirit’ of the age, embodied in the ‘sphere of consciousness’, that determined the progress of history. Hegel believed that ideas were an important independent variable and that the spirit of the age was contained in the ‘struggle for recognition’, or a universal human desire to dignity and self-worth. For the youthful Hegel, the spirit of the age was contained in the ‘world-soul’ Napoleon, and for the ageing Hegel, in the authoritarian Prussian state.
Francis Fukuyama repackaged Hegel’s directional history for the age of post-Cold War triumphalism. Fukuyama famously believed that the struggle for recognition, or thymos (a term not used by Hegel) had been perfected in the form of liberal democracy. Thymos is a concept that goes back to Plato, but Fukuyama resuscitated it as best reflecting the ideas of Hegel. Fukuyama identified two forms of thymos: megalothymia, or the desire to be treated as superior to other individuals, and isothymia, the desire to be considered equal to others. Borrowing liberally from the Franco-Russian philosopher and interpreter of Hegel Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968), Fukuyama saw the starting point of history as a primordial ‘bloody battle’ between two individuals, which established the master-slave dialectic of history. Over time, the slave would gain power and self-respect, until there was finally no distinction between the master and slave, but rather a shared sense of isothymia. Fukuyama’s thesis was that liberal democracy perfectly satisfied the individual’s desire for isothymia, as it was ‘completely satisfying to man’. Liberal democracy thus conquered the megalothymia of the masters. However, the events of 2016 have made it clear that liberal democracy does anything but satisfy the individual demand for recognition. The voters who embraced Trump and Brexit clearly felt a sense of marginalisation and abandonment at the hands of the political elite.
A perhaps more pertinent question is whether the search for isothymia even matters any more. Trump built his successful election campaign on a platform of exclusion and relentlessly targeted Hispanics, Muslims and China to gain political traction. While Fukuyama believed that people would achieve a feeling of isothymia within an inclusive, harmonious society, he acknowledged that those who feel alienated by liberal democracy would always have the potential to ‘restart history’. Fukuyama believed that liberal democracy could conquer the master-slave dialectic of history, but in 2016, the angry masses arguably restarted history and laid waste to Fukuyama’s liberal democratic, ‘post-historical’ world. This upending of the status quo shows that the Hegelian-Fukuyamean quest for isothymia has become redundant. While Fukuyama is generally associated with neoconservatism, as Slavoj Zizek noted in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, in the absence of compelling ideological alternatives most of us, including the Left, are Fukuyameans at heart. Many commentators have raised the question of whether the traditional political binary of Right and Left is useful any more, with journalists reaching for new political divisions such as ‘open versus closed’, or even ‘the sane versus the mindlessly angry’.
How then can we salvage history? Karl Löwith, in his 1948 book Meaning in History, proposed a link between teleological interpretations of history and Judeo-Christian determinism, which he called ‘political theology’. Löwith argued that all directional histories lacked coherence and that we should instead return to a cyclical, Greco-Roman conception of historical progress. For Löwith, directional histories were a form of ‘false consciousness’ that simply rephrased religious narratives about the progress of history. The events of 2016 can only lead to a new era of cynicism about directional history and historical triumphalism. On the surface, a return to a Greco-Roman conception of time, and a presumed return to periods of catastrophe and struggle is a grim prospect. However, there is a progressive argument to be made for such an approach. Clearly, historical teleology has failed both the Left and the mainstream Right. As far as history goes, we need to accept that we will never be out of the woods. Envisioning disaster in the future and abandoning historical triumphalism means that we will be better equipped to respond to the challenges that history will inevitably pose. Löwith, and his conception of progress as a false consciousness driven by little more faith, or ‘eschatology’s bastard’ in his words, is a thinker for our time. Why is it important to correct the deterministic, Hegelian-Fukuyamean conception of history in order to better fit our troubled times? Because it’s 2017.