Is history beginning again?

A small, slight figure scurries through the sunrise at the sprawling Queensland resort hotel, Mamiya 6×7 camera and gear in hand and over shoulder, seeking out images of a foreign country. He is Francis Fukuyama and he is also an accomplished cabinetmaker.

But he is better known for his construction of very big ideas and for his picture of a world at the “end of history” — not the end of events but the endpoint of the contest of ideas with the victory of liberal democracy and market capitalism, Europe’s great invention.

Are we at the end of history? Or is a new battle of ideas and systems being joined with “islamism” — radical islam transmuted from religion into an ideology, giving rise to terror of the sort that blasted a huge hole in New York last September 11?

Some say “islamism” is the new enemy of liberal democracy, replacing fascism and communism, the great but long-defeated bogeys of the twentieth century.

Samuel Huntington, like Fukuyama an American university professor, in 1993 wrote of an emerging “clash of civilisations” between the west and non-west, principally islamic, peoples. Muslim terrorists’ attack on New York on September 11 gave his theory a new lease of life.

Yet Fukuyama does not recant. He argues almost the opposite: that liberal democracy’s great strength is that cultural differences “tend to be put in a box, separated from politics and relegated to the realm of private life”, ringed by strong institutions such as the rule of law and respect for individual liberty.

Fukuyama will defend his analysis in the Business Roundtable’s annual Sir Ronald Trotter lecture on 12 August. Last week [subs: 1-2 August] he made a keynote contribution at a “consilium” (conference) of business CEOs in Queensland organised by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a private think tank recently dubbed Australia’s most influential by the Australian Financial Review and credited by Australian Prime Minister John Howard with having “broken officials’ monopoly on advice”.

Fukuyama initially presented his “end of history” analysis in an article in 1989, later expanded into a book. His more recent books have examined the centrality of trust to the success of liberal democracy and capitalism — a poignant assertion in the light of recent huge-scale cheating by major American corporations — and, this year, what he sees as potentially dangerous uses of human biotechnology, including genetic modification (GM). He wants GM tightly regulated.

To many on the left, Fukuyama is an apologist for the libertarian new right. In fact he distinguishes between liberal democracy and libertarianism. In the Wall Street Journal in May he described the libertarianism which grew out of the international economic reforms of the 1980s as “radical dogma, the limitations of which are becoming increasingly clear”.

Libertarians, he wrote, overreached themselves and libertarianism is now “fighting rearguard actions” on foreign policy and human biotechnology.

In New Zealand the ACT party, stalled on 7 per cent of the vote, has exemplified this overextension. Catherine Judd is trying to reposition ACT as non-radical through her “liberal project”. The political market for radicalism in non-revolutionary times is small.

So Fukuyama’s “end of history” is not a free-market free-for-all. It is a much subtler notion. It is that the ideas embedded in the American and French revolutions of liberty and equality have triumphed and that economic modernisation, driven by science, draws people inexorably towards the liberal ideal and eventually the practice of liberal democracy.

“Modernity, as represented by the United States and other developed democracies,” he wrote in the latest issue of the CIS’s journal, Policy, “will remain the dominant force in world politics and the institutions embodying the west’s underlying principles of freedom and equality will continue to spread around the world.”

For his inspiration, Fukuyama reaches back to 1806. In that year German philosopher Georg Hegel suggested history had been a continual process of conflict between contradictions (a “thesis” opposed by an “antithesis”) within systems of ideas and social organisation and their resolution into a “synthesis” (which becomes a new thesis). Hegel asserted that the ideals of liberty and equality were an end-state, in which there were no more contradictions.

Fukuyama is not the first to follow Hegel. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx used this methodology to prophesy that the conflict between labour and capital within “bourgeois” society in the nineteenth century would synthesise into a classless society. Perverted into totalitarian communism, this idea crashed in the 1980s.

So Fukuyama treads a slippery path. And even if he is right, why should liberal democracy/market capitalism be the endpoint of the Hegelian process any more than marxism was? Might not contradictions develop which resolve into some different future new state? Why not indeed? asked an obviously well-educated CEO at the CIS consilium.

In fact Fukuyama concedes it might. The title of his original essay ended in a questionmark: “The End of History?” “There may be this alternative X which no one has thought of but I don’t see it on the horizon,” he told me in an interview on August 2. Since the defeat of fascism and communism in the twentieth century, “there doesn’t seem to be a lot of variety of arrival points that are plausible.”

Asian soft authoritarianism of the Lee Kuan Yew Singaporean sort, based on “Asian values”, looked a runner. But, he says, the 1998 Asian crisis exposed some of Asian authoritarianism’s weaknesses. And Taiwan and South Korea have developed democratic tendencies.

Fukuyama says a middle class enriched by economic modernisation eventually demands, and gets, democratic participation, though there may be many fits and starts and reversals along the route. There is, in short, progress and it “goes through some fairly well-understood stages”.

But, to go back to Huntington, surely this is just an American perspective. It doesn’t look the same from an African or Pakistani village.

Which brings us to “islamism”. There are about a billion muslims, with a different world view from non-muslims. About 10 per cent are radical islamists, says Daniel Pipes, an American Middle East scholar who also spoke at the consilium.

Islamism is not religious fundamentalism, Pipes says. It is an ideology, as fascism and communism were. Fukuyama says it offers an abstract comforter — as fascism did in the early twentieth century — to the “very large populations uprooted from traditional village or tribal life” by modernisation. Its leaders, men of the sort who drove the planes into the twin towers, are of the educated middle class, the sort who led the fascist and communist movements.

Fukuyama calls this “islamo-fascism”. And he thinks, along with Pipes, that it will fail. There is nothing in the islamic religion, he says, which is antithetical to modernisation. And it is unacceptable to mainstream muslims.

“Radical islam is a reaction to the success of liberal democracy but not really an alternative,” he said in our interview. “Certainly not for any non-islamic society. But even for muslims it doesn’t seem to be a plausible alternative.

“The way you judge these alternatives, I think, is in terms of their stability and the degree of satisfaction that they provide to those who live in those societies. And I think that for all the discontents of liberal democracy, it works better as a society than any of the historical alternatives.”

Moreover, he wrote in Policy, western institutions hold all the cards of science, wealth creation and accommodation of diversity “and for that reason will continue to spread across the globe in the long run”.

“But,” he added, “to get to the long run we must survive the short run. There is no inevitability to historical progress and few good outcomes absent leadership, courage and a determination to fight.”

Unlike previous such movements, “islamo-fascists”, operate not as super-nationalists through conventional war but by terrorism. They potentially have access to weapons of mass destruction, are willing to use them and thus might well cause enormous damage.

And there are deep divisions between the United States and Europe, not least that Europe has around five times the number of muslims the United States has. One CEO with experience of islam warned the consilium that mainstream muslims bitterly resent the term “islamists” as tarring them by association.

Fukuyama, a former foreign affairs official, is aware of this. In Europe in May he found a resurgence of anti-Americanism, even in ally countries. He will argue in his Trotter lecture that the Bush Administration — now, according to Australian intelligence, close to deciding to take on Iraq — needs to exercise “prudence” in its conduct of the so-called “war on terrorism” to ensure the United States itself does not become the issue, instead of terrorism.

Fukuyama may also get caught up in the GM debate here. Supporters of extending the moratorium on commercialisation of GMOs might find a friend. And that might be an interesting experience for leftist moratorium supporters who have demonised him as new right.

That slight figure wisping through the sunrise in Queensland is not, unlike cultural differences, for putting in a box.