The Surprise of History (Lee Harris, 30 Jan 2006, Tech Central Station)

[H]egel is arguing that as long as America still had a virtually unlimited frontier it would remain a land of opportunity, a place where those who were not content with their lot in life could simply pick up and move on to virgin soil, creating for themselves a new life that was almost entirely of their own making — which, of course, is exactly what many Americans were doing when Hegel wrote his lecture, and would continue to do for a long time after his death.

Because America had this convenient remedy for those who were dissatisfied with the status quo, there was no danger that those who were deeply dissatisfied with their position in the world would pose a political threat to the stability of the social order. Instead of rebelling against the status quo, they simply left it behind and went in search of a better life for themselves in the frontier — potential rebels became pioneers. “If the ancient forests of Germany still existed, the French Revolution would never have occurred. North America will be comparable with Europe only after the measureless space which this country affords is filled and its civil society begins to press in on itself.”

Hegel’s conclusion? “It is therefore not yet possible to draw any lessons from America as regards republican constitutions.”

It is hard to imagine a more sober statement than this, and one less full of moonshine and nonsense. Here Hegel is telling those who have made up their minds about the significance of the United States not to jump the gun — it is too early to say how its historical course will develop. It may be that America will prove that large scale republics are possible; but, on the other hand, it may not prove this at all. Only the future can decide this question.

In other words, not only does Hegel refrain from trying to predict the future himself, but he discourages it in others. Not only does he refuse to give “absolute answers” on the question of where history is headed, he rejects even tentative ones. In fact, all he is prepared to say is that a society that has a vast frontier available to it can afford a more libertarian and less centralized form of government than one that lacks such a frontier.

Curiously enough, those who are familiar with the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous Frontier Thesis will see that Hegel anticipated the basic logic of this thesis sixty years before Turner announced it. What might well have surprised Hegel is how short a time it would take to declare the American frontier closed.

Yet Hegel was quite prepared for history to surprise him. Unlike Marx, who did believe that history obeyed iron-clad laws similar to those scientific laws that governed the behavior of physical objects, Hegel recognized that the existence of human freedom, and the role of accident and chance, rendered all attempts to predict the future course of history futile and even dangerous. Again, unlike Marx who did believe that history would have an end, Hegel emphatically rejected such a notion. There would always be something to divide human beings, and hence there would always be a struggle between them, and out of this struggle would arise the phenomenon known as history.

The normally reliable Mr. Harris seems not to have taken Mr. Fukuyama’s point here. The argument is not that history will cease happening because it has reached its end–an obvious absurdity–but that in liberal democracy mankind has reached an End of History in the sense that the millennia long argument over what kind of state and society is the best has been decided dispositively in favor of liberal democracy:

The distant origins of the present volume lie in an article entitled “The End of History?” which I wrote for the journal The National Interest in the summer of 1989. In it, I argued that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism. More than that, however, I argued that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history.” That is, while earlier forms of government were characterised by grave defects and irrationalities that led to their eventual collapse, liberal democracy was arguably free from such fundamental internal contradictions. This was not to say that today’s stable democracies, like the United States, France, or Switzerland, were not without injustice or serious social problems. But these problems were ones of incomplete implementation of the twin principles of liberty and equality on which modern democracy is founded, rather than of flaws in the principles themselves. While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on.

The more accurate argument against Mr. Fukuyama is that, like almost all neocons, he’s failed to understand the centrality of religion to human affairs and, therefore, not understood that for most countries the End will indeed be their end. That sad fact leaves plenty of tragic history to be played out, but can’t change the fundamental point that the Anglo-American Judeo-Christian Republic can not be too much improved upon.

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