Will history end? Musings on the war of ideas

A legacy piece from 2017.

“History” is an ambiguous word, albeit a common one. But defining history’s limits is worthwhile, as we all partake in history’s course every time we speak to a friend, write a letter or send a meme on Facebook. For philosophers Hegel, Kant and Marx, history was the history of ideas. In this way, if humanity agreed upon a common idea of how to organise society – be it freedom, democracy or communism – history could end. So will history end?

The battle of the pyramids, 1798 — an early victory for Napoleon Bonaparte, in the wake of the French Revolution.

On 6 August 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II submitted to the power of French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. As his troops marched into Berlin after the Battle of Jena on 14 October, Napoleon resolved to rid Europe of weak governments. He sought this through the introduction of bureaucracies. A bureaucracy, for philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, was a strong government with an effective civil service, coupled with respect for individual liberties. The arguments that form history eventually ended in 1806 as the ideal of bureaucratic governance took hold. For Hegel, Napoleon’s string of victories in 1806 therefore represented the beginning of the end for history.

Did history end in 1806, then? Apparently not, since World War I, World War II, the Cold War and the War on Terror have been fought on idealistic grounds. As the founder of historical “idealism”, it is somewhat disappointing that Hegel failed to predict the subsequent two centuries of conflict concerning Utopian ideas, be they democratic, fascist, communist or (dare I say) Trumpist. There was no agreement reached from 1806 onwards on the nature of governance, allowing history to continue.

Francis Fukuyama, however, wrote in 1989 that the “end of history” had dawned upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, enabling the spread of democracy throughout the world. Democracy was the ingredient for the culmination of ideas and the end of history. Idealist Immanuel Kant would agree, as he thought that democracies would rarely fight one another, since their ideas converged. After all, in 1970 there were 35 electoral democracies, whilst in 2015 there were around 86, and these democracies have been relatively peaceful with one another. However, the spread of democracy is starting to slow, if not reverse. The Freedom House estimates that, whilst 43 countries made gains in democracy in 2015, 72 lost a degree of democracy. History did not end in 1989.

David Harvey foresees an alternative end to history. Following Karl Marx’s ‘stage theory’ of historical development, Harvey predicts an end to capitalism due to the system’s contradictions. In order to generate profit, companies accumulate capital (wealth), and therefore debt (IOUs). So if the Government followed through with its policy eradicate state debt and reduce company-to-company debt, capitalism would also be eradicated. Therefore, capitalism’s contradictions should give way to the establishment of communist governments worldwide. This would end the history of ideas with the establishment of international communism, or a worldwide system of state-owned economic systems. However, communism has not been the response to the economic turbulence in the past decade, contrary to Harvey and Marx’s predictions. Instead, populist parties, bent on saying anything to win votes, have resurged through Donald Trump in America, Marine le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. None of these individuals dismisses capitalism on ideological grounds; instead, they propose to modify it to suit their populist, egoistic interests.

So freedom did not bring an end to history in 1806, but nor did history end in 1989 with the spread of democracy. Moreover, capitalism may survive the growth of Trumpist populism, which would put end-of-history communism to rest. Contrary to the gospels of Hegel, Kant and Marx and their respective disciples, history shows every sign of continuing infinitely. But, if the resurgence of populism shows anything, it is that history is being made, just in an unexpected way. Instead of idealistic alternatives to the status quo, populism represents an unashamedly self-centred alternative to capitalism and liberal democracy. So, in a way, philosophical history, as the mere history of ideas, has already ended. But perhaps political history, as the history of decisions taken and not taken by our governments, is yet to hear its death knell.

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