“Humanity has reached not just, the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such”
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. In the book, he made an argument about how to evaluate human history as a linear progression with the terminus of this progression, being the Western style of liberal democracy.
The basis of Fukuyama’s work is deeply nestled in the clash of ideologies that was the Cold War, between the capitalist USA, and the communist USSR. The effects of Fukuyama’s idea is deeply widespread in both culture and society since it leads us logically to an end of historical progression. Humanity’s historical arc is one that bends towards societies that eventually produce some kind of parliamentary democracy, and invariably this will be coupled with some kind of market system.
After all, the end of the Soviet Union facilitated what might be seen as the last widespread ideological and political alternative to capitalism and the system of democracy that springs up around it.
For a book with the title, the End of History, one might be tempted to think Fukuyama is talking about the ending of time but this is far from the truth. Fukuyama is talking about the end state of historical development, not that time itself actually ceases to be. So then, the question arises, what might happen after the end of history?
In 1982, the movie Blade Runner hit theatres and gave the world a rain-soaked vision of the future. It was not the first piece of media in the genre of cyberpunk, it was after all based on a prior novel, but it is definitely one that cemented in the public’s mind what the future might look like.
With big urban megacities, rain-soaked concrete slums, and enough neon lights to make you blind, the movie presents us with a vision of a future past. A 2019 with artificial humanoids, flying cars and outer space colonies. Yet, if we look beyond the glare of the aesthetic, we see a society that is still at the end of history so to speak.
While it is not discussed in the film, the political and social structures of the world of Blade Runner are entirely similar to our own. Capitalism is still the dominant economic structure. An ostensible, but largely absent government is slowly giving way to large megacorporations. In this sense, history has ended. The systems of control that we grapple with today, are still going on in the future. They continue long past any of the ideological presuppositions that once defined them.
Real-life has long since eclipsed the first Blade Runner movie, although with the sequel we have a ways to go before we will be free of references to replicants. Our own timeline has progressed but history has not. The global system of power is still in the hands of a few capitalist countries and to date, no effective alternatives exist to challenge this hegemony.
And yet, if you look at the news today, you will see a world in crisis. Rather than prove to be stable, capitalism has erupted into crisis at several points in the last few decades. There have been devastating recessions and wars and now, looming large over the entire species, is the threat of climate change and the devastating consequences it will wreck on the planet.
So what happened? Why did history not end?
The answer I believe, has been with us from the start. According to the Marxist economist, Richard Wolff, the history of capitalism is littered with evidence for its instability. The contradictions that make capitalism such an expansive force, as compared to say feudalism, also make it very unstable and this instability cannot be removed from it.
The frequency of boom-bust cycles demonstrates that with enough time, a capitalist economic system will invariably crash and need restarting, like a bad engine. While a broken engine may only halt a single car, capitalism as the engine of the global economy hurts all of our lives.
Capitalists have tried to fix this, like John Maynard Keynes who proposed the government ought to heavily regulate capitalism, but these attempts to wrangle the bull, have always seen the riders get thrown. Sooner or later, the seeds of instability are grown and only exacerbated, as capitalism produces crisis after crisis.
For the people of a cyberpunk story, the ultimate form of this has happened. Capital has transcended the bounds of merely advising the holders of power to hold the reins itself. Of course, because there is a punk to cyberpunk, a great deal of the story will invariably revolve around a resistance to this power.
Hackers, outcasts, and people from the fringes of society are invariably protagonists in cyberpunk stories because they represent the kind of people that history forgot. In a way, it is poetic that the kind of people who have no use to the system would be the ones to overthrow it.
Cyberpunk is however still fantasy and we are long past the point of just a handful of plucky teenagers with wild haircuts and undermine a global hegemonic system of control.
For me, the question of whether history has actually ended largely revolves around whether or not society can escape out from the thumb of capitalism. If we cannot, then the pressures that capitalism continues to exert such as environmental decay, social inequality, and so on, will explode and send humanity backward in history. We will go back to the earlier systems of social control, to things such as feudalism or even earlier.
If we can however escape from capitalism, then not only will history not be at its end, history will finally have a chance to begin.
Contributor: Emilio Singh
Emilio completed a Master’s degree in Information Technology, specialising in Big Data at the University of Pretoria. He currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa where he teaches swordsmanship and lectures at the university.
[Also Read: The People’s Pamphlet]