Welcome to history
August 29, 2008
In 1989, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama saw the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe as "the end of history": After the fall of fascism in World War II, now came the end of the second kind of totalitarian regime. In using a term taken from Hegelian philosophy, Fukuyama argued that history had come to its climax and that the victory of democracy, liberalism and the capitalist market economy meant that humanity had come to its ultimate and universal end: the realization of freedom - personal, political and economic.
There was something intoxicating about this victory cry. Fukuyama's article reverberated enormously and was to a considerable extent responsible for the feeling of near-messianic euphoria that enveloped practical statesmen upon the collapse of the Soviet regime. Even people who had never heard of Hegel and his philosophy of history took delight in the intellectual significance that Fukuyama had afforded to communism's downfall.
However, many people treated this analysis with skepticism; especially its implicit assumption that while it did lead to the opposite of Marxism, it was one-dimensional, linear and deterministic in the same way. If in Marxism all roads led to communism, for Fukuyama all roads are supposed - inevitably, and from within an inner law - to lead to democracy and a market economy. The structure's architecture was impressive, but were the bricks and mortar indeed there?
The doubts were confirmed when it became clear that not all the post-communist countries were doing the same thing: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary succeeded in the transition to democracy and a market economy, but in Russia there were more complex developments. The Soviet republics in Central Asia developed into classic third-world dictatorships and the complex ethnic disputes in the former Yugoslavia proved that when communism vanishes, classic national conflicts often surface, not a vision of universal, democratic and liberal harmony.
The events of recent weeks in Russia and China, which are ostensibly quite different, only magnify the extent of Fukuyama's mistake. In one there is a brutal war, while in the other there is a stunning sports spectacle. But both of them indicate that what is happening before our eyes is far from the end of history.
On the contrary, to a large extent it is the return of history. The war between Russia and Georgia - whose outcome has been in effect the dismemberment of Georgia - indicates that after the weakness and crumbling during the Boris Yeltsin era, Russia is again becoming a power sending a bullying message to its neighbors. What happened in the Caucasus is reminding many people that Russia has never been a nation state in the usual sense of the term, but has always been an empire - whether in czarist or Soviet guise. And under Vladimir Putin it is again becoming what it had been in the past.
After the suppression of the Chechens - the continuation of a long and brutal war that Russia conducted against them in the 19th century - Moscow is returning to assert its regional hegemony. For the Georgians - and for anyone who knows a bit of history - this policy constitutes a return to what has already happened twice: when (czarist) Russia annexed the Georgian kingdom in 1801 and when (Soviet) Russia annexed the social democratic Georgian republic in 1921 - incidentally, also on the grounds that it was helping the Ossetians.
A return to the signs of Russian neo-imperialism was already on the horizon in recent years: sophisticated repression of the opposition - whether by neutralizing potential opponents through quasi-legal means or mysterious murders of independent journalists - and the concentration of economic resources in the regime's hands. There is also continuing pressure on Ukraine at a time when energy prices are providing an effective tool to use on Europe, accompanied by Putin's bullying rhetoric.
In Beijing we were witness to something else - but not so different. China freed itself long ago from communist ideology, but the Communist Party today constitutes the most palpable manifestation of the Confucian heritage of order, discipline, hierarchy and harmony imposed from above - all according to the Chinese imperialist tradition, with the party instead of mandarins. Industrial capitalism is burgeoning in the shadow of a Confucian regime that embodies multidimensional power - all this amid a total ignoring of human rights and the oppression of national minorities, as in Tibet.
It was impossible not to be impressed by the spectacular performances of the Olympic ceremonies, but the more spectacular they were, the more frightening they were - in their power, their ability to put the masses to work, the iron discipline that seemed it had not been imposed from above but had sprung from the tens of thousands of smiling participants. After all, the Nazi spectacles at the mass rallies at Nuremberg and the Berlin Olympics in 1936 were stunning - and scary, and many good people were amazed by their artistic beauty. Who can deny that Leni Riefenstahl's films, with their amazing pictures and rousing music, could set millions marching, in part because of the inherent aesthetic allure?
After the communist intermezzo, both Russia and China are returning to the bosom of their history. The two histories are different - in one case imperial bullying, in the other Confucian discipline. However, what they have in common is a centralist and hierarchical government and a submissive population. There is power here and perhaps also beauty of a certain sort, but freedom, democracy and liberalism are absent. Welcome to history.