#83: The Purpose of History, or, We Need to Explain Democracy Better

Francis Fukuyama has been much ridiculed for allegedly claiming that we had reached the “end of history” in the 1990s after the victory of democracy over socialism. His argument, however, was more complex, and consisted rather in an update of Hegel’s analysis of the consequences of the dual victory of Napoleonic France (and its proclaimed democratic ideas) over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Hegel’s definition of history – put very simply – is the process throughout time by which the ideal political system is discovered. The “end of history”– again, very simplified – thus happened in 1806 in above mentioned victories.

Napoleon’s aim was the restoration of the Roman Republic under a French banner, utilizing the rallying cry of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality, fraternity – for his success. He did end the institution of serfdom (a version of slavery widespread in Europe) wherever he triumphed. As he did not triumph in Russia, serfdom there ended later. In the end, Napoleon succumbed to the seduction of empire and cannot be understood as the bringer of democracy; but the ideas his armies transported were successful enough to scare the sclerotic Prussian state into reform. Already, democracy had taken root in the American colonies, just as British Parliament had become more important than the king. The signs of the times were clear: the old ways – or rather, the monarchic ways – were done. The very old ways – Roman Republicanism – were the way of the future.

This is what “the end of history” means: From now on, any government that does not draw their legitimacy from the people as the sovereign, will be seen as illegitimate and is doomed to fail eventually. This is the reason that even the worst dictatorship on the planet calls itself either a republic or democratic. Already in Hegel’s times, it was clear that the victory of democracy was merely rhetorical. Democracy in France did not succeed until 1871, and Prussia would not become democratic overnight, but it would take till 1918 for the first German democracy to come into being.

Communist-Socialist states called themselves “people’s republics”, National Socialism claimed to bring about true democracy, and some monarchs or autocrats routinely see themselves as the vehicle through which the people somehow rule. The terms “democracy” or “republic” are regularly used to hide non-democratic systems.

This is done frequently by the means of a major conceit: “Democracy” is reduced to the mere act of holding elections. This is a deliberate distortion aimed at limiting the threshold for respectability. Any dictator can hold elections; but the trick lies in how you set up the democratic field, what candidates you allow, how you count, and what count you publish.

Democracy is more than that. Elections do matter, but are meaningless without the reliable, equal and incorruptible rule of law. The rights of the individual are paramount to any democracy, and underlie the demand for human rights. Civil liberties, including absolute free speech, freedom of religion, and the absolute freedom of the press are paramount. Connected to that are property rights, and free enterprise (which does not exclude regulation ensuring a free and fair functioning of the market). Corruption has to be minimized. Minorities need to be protected, specifically political minorities. Democracy does not work if the winners in an election can punish the losers with abandon. There needs to be a separation of powers and a form of checks and balances. Changing the constitution should be difficult. Representative democracy will be necessary for any state larger than a single town. Federalism and strengthening local governments will help to undercut the danger of democratic deficits originating from representative democracy (republicanism).

As you can see, this is all much more complicated, but it is complicated for a reason. Dictatorships and dictatorial movements – even if the couch themselves in the language of democracy – have nothing but disdain for any of that. Sham elections and party-line courts guarantee that true democracy does not endanger the rule of autocrats or oligarchs.

Right now, it seems that democracy is under attack by a variety of forces. Some dictatorships have seemingly had successes in good governance and modernization. That is certainly not impossible in the short run, but problems will accumulate in the longue durée.

The argument for democracy, in the end, is about practicality: It is the only system that works for everyone over time. It is the only system that can self-correct and increase liberty, equality, and the values of shared humanity for all. It is also the only system that will be at peace with systems like itself. Functioning democracies do not wage war against each other – it has never happened in history. Wherever democracy succeeded, peace followed, and social peace and justice have been allowed to progress. History may not be over, but the path, the destination, the telos (meaning purposeful end) is clear.

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Clearly, this is a more complicated topic, and I will follow up on this in more detail in further posts. As they say, “stay tuned.”