The end of everything else

During the 1990s, the phrase ‘the end of history’ became a commonplace without its significance being one wit better understood than it had been in the summer of 1989 when Francis Fukuyama published his article with almost that title, months before the Berlin Wall came down. No matter how often Fukuyama explains that the ‘History’ that had come to its end carried a capital-H, was the Hegelian concept of History as an Idea realising itself in the world, commentators never tire of telling him that a run of wars, revolutions and economic crises have proven him wrong, above all, that September 11 and its aftermaths demolished his thesis along with the Twin Towers.

Hegel decided that capital-H History ended in 1806 after the Battle of Jena led to a freeing of serfs in the conquered German lands, heralding the pre-eminence of two capital-I Ideas from the French Revolution: Dignity and Equality. Lord and Bondsman were no more. Hereafter, all human activities – which Hegel apotheosised to capital-H History – would be ways of enacting those twinned Ideas, or of resisting their fulfilment.

No, Maggie, there are alternatives.

Apart from the follies of Philosophical Idealism, Fukuyama went astray in picturing neo-liberal capitalism and bourgeois democracy as the final forms in which Dignity and Equality might express themselves during the coming few hundred years, unless, he mused, Japan Inc. moved in first, though that model was slipping into a deflationary spiral as his book-length version went to press in 1992. Instead, the next twenty years threw up five divergent challenges to the Thatcherite dictate that ‘There Is No Alternative’:

  1. the prime one comes from ‘the past’ in a motley of fundamentalisms against the modernising threats from capital accumulation;

  2. the possibility of new roads to socialism is fermenting in Latin America;

  3. a swerve towards capitalism in China has brought its polity not a jot closer to liberal democracy – indeed the beneficiaries of the Beijing boom oppose political reforms for fear of losing out to the workers they exploit;

  4. a crisis in capital accumulation is reviving doubts about capitalism, with the consequent menace to liberal democracy spot-lit by plutocracy in the US of A;

  5. the tensions between the supply of natural resources and the growth that capital must sustain if it is to survive intersect with the previous four to engender as many options as they close.

Globalised clichés
Befuddlement among the intelligentsia at Fukuyama’s Philosophical Idealism is matched by their lack of understanding about what has been happening to capitalism. Instead of analysing globalisation, they elevated that logo into an explanation for everything, universalising tourism and communications despite those experiences remaining limited to a fraction of the world’s people. The neighbourhood well holds its own against the latest gizmo as the source of views about the world.

Attempts by progressives at a critique of globalisation fared hardly better by attacking it as a race to the bottom for low wages instead of recognising capital’s 600-year pursuit of minimum labour-times, a mistake allied to chatter about the ‘flight of capital’ as if a factory could be relocated at the press of a computer key as readily as cash. This economic illiteracy is compounded by a want of historical knowledge about how global trade sparked the transition to capitalism from around 1400. To make matters worse, the Left largely and wrongly assumes that financial capital is more parasitic than its industrial forms.

Both Left and Right erred in picturing the demise of the nation-market-state at the hands of transnational firms. Some nation-market-states, obviously Iraq, did lose out to imperial ones though, even there, Halliburton needs the US military. Everywhere, corporations rely on the apparatuses of the state to organise capital and disorganise labour in ways that company managers cannot achieve. After the 1997 East Asian crisis, the IMF switched to underwriting ‘effective states’, that is, those with the clout to repress populations in revolt against the neo-liberal economic policies imposed through the Fund.

The bankruptcy of globalisation studies is matched by the affixing of ‘Post-’ to everything, a prestidigitation which has excused its addicts from knowing much about what they allege is at an end. For instance, how many writers about Post-Fordism realise that Fordism was built on continuous flows of labour and materials more than on particularisation? The speed-up of production lines in the last thirty years suggests that Fordism is just coming into its own.

Post-Modernists are not aware that much of what they claim as their own was in Modernism. For fractured identity, think Analytic Cubism, a Mahler symphony, Brecht’s alienation effect, Surrealism as automatic and a-telic. Even in architecture, where the term Post-Modern originated, few skyscrapers have been free of ornament.

Referring to settler Australia as ‘Post-Colonial’ overlooks that our feeble efforts at independence have gone towards de-dominionisation, for instance, waiting for a republic. Except for the US of A, erstwhile territorial possessions are not Post-Colonial but Neo-Colonial, defined by Nasser and Sukarno as formal political freedom veiling economic dominance, which is true also for Australia and, since the early 1990s, is again becoming the case for mainland China.

The rise of capitalism in China is one more zig-zag in the de-colonisations that began during the French Revolution, to be revived by the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions, and are finding expressions in the Bolivarian revolution and in upsurges across the Arab world. This protracted process threatens the dominance of metropolitan capitals, not necessarily the rule of capital.

Capital: the Grandest Narrative
The Post-Modernists’ discarding of the Grand Narratives of Modernism and of socialism overlooks how that grandest of all narratives - capital accumulation - has intensified and, to survive, must grow by at least 3 percent per annum, doubling its gross output every twenty years. Environmental restraints on that expansion are limits which capital must resolve by making any solutions contribute to its expansion. Sustainable capitalism is an oxymoron even over a short haul. Its il-logic will mean an over-production of solar panels.

The more that capital triumphs, the livelier is the backlash from those whose habits and beliefs are being trampled. The big events since the Battle of Jena are instalments in a 600-year tug of war between the rule of capital and previous ways of living. Although the Fundamentalism of Bin Laden’s militants flows from a rejection of modernity by Islamic scholars in the nineteenth century, that strand did not come to the fore until modernising projects failed a majority of the Prophet’s followers. Since the 1950s, they have endured the defeat of Nasserism, of Arab Socialism and of OPEC, the resilience of Zionism and the conflict in Kashmir. These ruptured expectations fuel the furies.

In the wake of the collapse of secular hopes, Islamists tied their miseries more tightly to their religion, which, as Marx said, serves as ‘the heart of a heartless world’. Faith offers the Dignity that the nation-market-state did not deliver while Sharia promises Equality between men, though not for women. A few seek Dignity as ‘Paradise Now’ through suicide bombing. In a twist on the progressive humanism of the Safafiyyah, many more are internalising their piety as ritual.

Socialist revolutions also broke through the village gates, often at the cost of re-enforcing defensive rural mentalities. Nowhere has that reaction been more telling than in Afghanistan where Communists in the late 1970s tried to carry gender equity into the tribal areas. US imperialists should have backed that Kabul regime as an ally in modernisation.

Are we to see the failures to install Dignity and Equality through socialist planning as terminal, or but embryonic attempts by hundreds of millions of people to earn esteem and win justice? Like mass movements against war, the efforts to realise those ideals are unprecedented in human experience. Once we recall how haunted by other traditions is the rule of capital still, no one again should expect to see socialism in one lifetime.

Men on Horseback
Two continuities are certain. The first is that the reaction from feudal/Confucian/tribal systems is not about to disappear anymore than capital can slacken the pace of its expansion. The second certainty is that soft power is never enough to propel that growth.

That it took the Battle of Jena to inscribe Dignity and Equality onto Hegel’s concept of History confirms that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, occasionally also delivering authority and legitimacy. The long twentieth century proved to be a new hundred years war during which aerial bombing shifted mass destruction back onto non-combatants. Armies across Africa wage wars of plunder against civilians because they cannot fight back. Industrial regimes de-labourised the battlefield to avoid the mass conscription that deprived states of their monopoly of violence. The military can thus more easily defeat or subvert popular uprisings, as in the Philippines after Marcos, and lately in the Arab revolt. Chavez is alive only because he brought half the Venezuelan army with him.

Dignity of labour
For his 1992 book, Fukuyama removed the question mark from ‘the end of history?’ in his essay, but added ‘and the last man’, pitting Nietzsche against Hegel. Once Dignity is equalised, Nietzsche sneered, it cannot supply self-worth. Citizenship is indeed meaningless if rights are bestowed from on high and amount to little more than a vote every three years. How seven billions are to have dignity is the conundrum at the close of Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5. One answer is by earning it. If art is the only form of work suitable to human beings, we must recreate the sense of achievement that flows from social labour for a collective purpose.

In contemporary capitalism, over-consumption is a surrogate for the workplace satisfactions denied by alienated labour. That super-abundance of commodities is also essential for the realisation of profit from the over-production required for the survival of capital. As a result, debt versus avarice, gluttony versus vanity, are the choices that delineate morality under neo-liberal capital, not a quest for Dignity and Equality.

Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian working from Canberra. His latest book is Framework of Flesh, Builders’ labourers battle for health and safety (Ginninderra, 2009). His history of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation will appear late in 2011. He wrote the introductory essay for Peter Lyssiotis’s Men of Flowers. He is supposed to be finishing a history of colour in Australian life but keeps getting distracted by the crisis in the accumulation of capital.