Progress

I’ve been reading through Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man in an effort to familiarize myself with IR theorists and I find it striking how such political scientists/philosophers seem to return to and incorporate the writings of older political theorists and Enlightenment philosophers in postmodern political thinking. I would not be surprised if the themes of Hegel, Kant, and Plato were discoursed today in as much relevance and with as much vision as they were so many years ago.

The fundamental question that comes to mind: Is there Progress? Is History going somewhere, pursuing a given end, whether we will reach it or not? Can we really say that there is any progress in history?

If we speak of the history of the universe, indeed our own solar system, it is quite clear that our world has an end as long as the star which is our Sun has a limited lifespan left of a billion years. However, Kant and Hegel were not so much concerned with the universe, but rather about the progress of humanity. For them, human development demonstrated a linear (with its own dips and peaks) system of events which built up human civilization and culminated in some sort of ultimate rationality of humanity or a Universal State. Upon having achieved such developments, humanity could not return to its former “barbarity”: this being a rejection of the Greek and Roman philosophers’ notion of cyclical history. The expression “history always repeats itself” has little bearing on the grand scheme of Hegel’s Weltgeist, since no event is ever repeated in quite the same way nor by the same means. Though the two Germans were supportive of collective change, they did point out the uniqueness of certain individuals in shaping history and thereby advancing “underlying” goals or landmarks in it.

Fukuyama’s analysis points to the advance of technology and the adoption of liberal democratic values as the guarantee that humanity will not backtrack on its path towards higher stages of civilization (no matter how many atrocities and barbarities we’ve been through). He seems to think (albeit in the 1990s) humanity couldn’t be better due to all the enviable comforts and triumphs of capitalism in a post-Cold War world. He’s a bit preachy when it comes to the benefits of capitalism and lauds democracy for fulfilling, perhaps transcending, the liberal vision of John Stuart Mill. Still, the idea is preserved that humans have managed to find “the good life” or identify with/know how to seek certain features of it on both a micro and macro scale (i.e. human rights, higher standards of living, social welfare). Humanity is embracing rationality, as it were, and reaping the fruits, according to this IR theorist.

I share the optimistic view that the progress of human development thus far is more or less positive in terms of more widespread education and scientific discoveries, though I do not believe for one second that history will end in cozy economic prosperity produced by free markets nor that political institutions have evolved to their very best in the democratic institutions as Fukuyama posits. Where’s the fun in that? Fukuyama’s liberal democratic values as the status quo will not be fully explored or tested until implemented in a world governance structure, engineered and implemented in the vague future. My humble opinion is that the surety of change and the contributions of intellectual criticism are the dynamic life-blood which drive human development and why should we set limits to our history, when each day, we leap across its boundaries at a whim?

The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques Louis David