The Cambrian Explosion as you’ll remember refers to an epoch recorded in the fossil record which is known as, in the words of noted archaeologist Bill Bryson, “[…] the moment when complex life burst forth in dazzling profusion — the famous Cambrian explosion”. We’re talking 500-million-plus years ago.
I want to suggest that something similar happened in the Axial Age roughly 2,500 ago, but with thought. According to Karl Jaspers in his work Origin and Goal of History something profound or pivotal happened between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century BCE in China, India, and Greece. World-spanning religions were formed. Itinerant scholars† plied their trade. According to Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation what is now called The Golden Rule was formulated simultaneously and what seems like independently. Axiomatic math was laid out by a dude called Euclid. David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years‡ argues that it is the simultaneous and independent invention of coinage that spurred this social complexity. But to have coinage one must have not just the technology but the idea of coinage. Witness bitcoin where tech capability pre-dated invention by 30 years or so. And for an idea like coinage one needs abstraction. And we know what that age also gave us, the birth of philosophy, and if there is one thing a philosopher gets off on it’s abstraction.
Francis Fukayama was right but not in the way he thought he was right. In his 1989 book, The End of History, Fukayama famously argued that liberal democracy and capitalism have won (so to speak) and so that, by consequence, we are entering into an era where local, regional, and global governments are and will continue to be liberal democracies and that their economies are and will adhere to free market capitalist ideals. He talks about countries and nation states ‘getting on the escalator’ – note the upward trend in that metaphor.
History is a nightmare from which we struggle to waken. That communities in conflict remain in conflict because they cannot drop their historical baggage and unlink the historical chains that bind them to the past should be obvious to anybody after a moment’s recollection. History will be at an end when a negative attitude towards the historicization of the past prevails in very much the same way as the project of negative ethics treats moralism with a high degree of suspicion.
Fukayama’s thesis concerns just two social systems, the political and economic. These are important institutions but society is not dominated by these institutions. Note that Fukayama is making a social claim when declaring that history in its entirety is at an end when certain economic and political orders have prevailed. Fukayama’s thesis is part assertion and part prediction. That assertion, into which discipline does it fall? That prediction, into which discipline does it fall?
Those who argue with Fukayama’s thesis are falling into the same trap that Fukayama has fallen into. They are arguing over details. Everyone has their own favourite economic system and political system. Everyone identifies with a certain way of distributing power and property – these ideological commitments shape every one of us. The system that wins out is perhaps the system that has the better propaganda. And what better propaganda to claim, that ideologically speaking, your side has won and so the other sides should put down their ideologies. This is the trap, we must transcend ideology. The end of history is marked by a future where history loses its grip on our minds, not a future where my economic and political team has overcome your team.
Incidentally (though it does not affect my main point) Fukayama’s thesis commits a couple of errors within its own world-view. First it commits the error of thinking that democracy (as such) and capitalism (as such) go hand in hand ideologically speaking. Just because you grew up where the river flowed west-to-east down the valley does not mean that every river one encounters in life will flow west-to-east. This is just a feature of your natural local geography. Why would you think it applies globally? Secondly to believe that the political joke that is the Western liberal democratic project in any way resembles unanimous direct democratic ideals is laughable – to claim that the crony capitalism that infects the markets today is an honest stand in for regulated free market capitalism is to show yourself as worryingly blinkered.
So it goes.
History will be at an end when we wake up from history, only this is true – everything else is ideological nonsense and sleight of hand.