The End of History vs. 2020

Published: 2021-01-06
Tagged: essay readings pandemic

2020 was rough. I'm glad my family and I made it through with only minor troubles. It's was also a supremely confusing year, forcing my grey matter to work harder than ever to make sense of things. One of the books that I found useful was Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man." Although published in 1992, it offers some surprisingly well-fitting pegs for the oddly-shaped hole of 2020.

Fukuyama's Pegs

The book's foundation is made of the ideas of Hegel and Nietzsche. My understanding of their trains of thought is fuzzy at best, so treat this description with a grain of salt. According to these two philosophers, ever since we began forming groups, we've engaged in games of dominance, a practice that divides us into "winners" and "losers." Those who can overcome their animal programming and risk their lives become winners (if they survive), and those who can't end up submitting to the first group. With the invention and spread of liberal democracy, fewer people have to risk their lives to earn the sort of recognition "winners" had, creating a world of losers "content to sleep in the sun all day, (...) like dogs." However, a few have resisted this pull of loserhood and are still willing to risk their lives–the titular Last Man.

To better understand the above concept, Fukuyama introduces "thymos", which Ancient Greeks described as "(...) the side of man that deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice, that tries to prove that the self is something better and higher than a fearful, needy, instinctual, physically determined animal." In other words, it is Man's hunger for recognition–the need that drives humans to construct, often through violence, elaborate hierarchies like tribes, cities, and nations. Luckily, there is a way to win recognition without bloody conflict: work. Not just any kind of work, but the artful kind that requires sustained effort and results in mastery and pride.

Democracy is eating the world for only it can create an environment where the greatest number of people can satisfy their thymos with the least amount of of conflict. If anyone can "win" recognition by teaching or driving a taxi, then there's no need for fist fights or bloody revolts. And when market competition fails, there's an intricate legal and political system to resolve issues (still nobody getting killed, yay). The amazing thing about this whole system is that it works despite all the corruption and mistakes.

After extolling the benefits of liberal democracy, Fukuyama tries to answer why the world around us isn't perfect. I like how he illustrates the difference between theory and implementation, and specifically how he focuses on culture. It is, according to him, one of the main reasons why some democracies thrive and others just kind of chug along. Some cultures are more aligned with the ideas of democracy (and capitalism), which produces a better implementation. Examples of these are the anglosphere countries with their protestant ethic, Japan with Shingaku and Jodo Shinsu, and Judaism with Tikkun Olam. As for cultures where the implementation is less perfect, Fukuyama points out South American countries like Argentina and Brazil. They are, he writes, strongly influenced by the culture of their historical colonizers–Spain and Portugal–which is holding them in something resembling mercantilism with a habit of government intervention. By compressing all the details of history into the higher-level object of "culture", Fukuyama adds nuance to the question of why, if we know a recipe for wealth and happiness, some countries lack both.

Another reason why our world isn't one big happy democracy is this thing called progress pessimism. It's a deeply embedded meme that came into being around Rousseau's time (eg. the "noble savage") and grew in power as the 20th century served up two world wars, the establishment of numerous totalitarian states, and a handful of industrial-grade genocides. These events shook people's faith in the idea of progress and have left most of us at least a little distrustful, yearning for the "good old days." After mulling this over in my head, I can't stop seeing this idea permeate everything: hipsterdom, rebels vs. Empire in Star Wars, industrialized humans vs happy blue aliens in Avatar, the books of Naomi Klein, and Palahniuk's Fight Club, like when Tyler Durden describes his post-apocalyptic utopia as a place where "liberated" people pound corn and dry venison on what used to be highways.

The Odd hole of 2020

Much of the unrest that happened this year can be explained by pessimism toward progress. Looking at even the short period between the end of WWII and now, we, humans, have done some magnificent work. More people than ever before enjoy safer, longer lives and the chance to pursue happiness. But one of our instincts is to value the negative over the positive, making our minds naturally gravitate toward bad news. This is what fuels our pessimism and fear, pushing us to assume a defensive, closed posture. In this state, the unfamiliar and the foreign seem especially dangerous, which is a bummer because we are all completely enveloped in it thanks to a global, always-online culture.

When the Internet arrived, it accelerated the distribution of ideas. Billions of people could plug into a shared, global media stream, allowing them to experience life together. On the surface, this looks like millions of people watching Game of Thrones or laughing at the same memes, but on a deeper level it's changing fundamental parts of our lives. We became free to associate with others from outside our geographic, ethnic, and religious circles, creating loose, distributed subcultures. These groups grant membership based on involvement and ability to contribute and ignore almost every other characteristic. (Nobody on the Internet knows you are a dog). But by interacting with people we would never have met before, we're becoming aware at an alarming speed of the other 7.8 billion humans out there. All of them different, weird, and scary. And there's nowhere to escape from this tide of otherness because the old world is turning to dust before our eyes. So, along with a hundred million others, we flinch.

These changes affect our thymos on a massive scale thanks to how social media both messes with our status and fans the flames of outrage. In the first case, proprietary algorithms evaluate and elevate the handful of the coolest influencers, leaving everyone else to fight for 2nd or 100,000th place. It's a global race to the bottom to share the best vacation picture, most appetizing food, or the most inspiring quote. Why does your baby get the recognition of merely 12 likes when another baby gets 5 million likes? These same algorithms also optimize for outrage, an emotion triggered when something dear and precious is attacked. They do this because it increases their engagement metrics by triggering our primitive fight/freeze/flight brain circuits that keep us coming back for more. But wait, it gets worse. Trolls and professional manipulators have learned how to game these algorithms to boost the distribution of their messages, ones specially crafted to spark the most outrage, destroy our thymos, and make us angry and defensive.

"The End of History and the Last Man" didn't explain everything about 2020, but it did offer a few new frames through which to see the situation. Even if it revealed more cracks in our civilization, it left me with a positive, hopeful feeling because, at the end, I believe we've managed to create a better world despite being greedy and aggressive monkeys.

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