For 50 years, from Pearl Harbor to the final deliquescence of the Soviet Union, the United States stood at Armageddon and did battle for the Lord against the vast forces of totalitarian evil. Suddenly, the age of trial was over. The question for the thoughtful was: what now?
Two schools of thought quickly emerged. Very well, said one. We have seen off imperial militarism in the shape of the Romanovs and the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. We have seen the pretensions of liberal imperialism, as variously practised by the British monarchy and the French Republic, shrivel into dependence on an American anti-imperial empire. And now we have outlasted communism. Who will be next, said this first school, as prominently represented by Harvard's Samuel Huntington. Whose potential threat might now justify the defence budget and the national security state?
Huntington's answer, to sum up a large and by no means altogether lucid argument, echoed the cloudy meta-history with which the Spenglers and the Toynbees responded to the comparable vacuum left by the First World War. Americans must expect "the clash of civilisations". There would be conflicts, Huntington predicted, but they would not be between nation states or even empires - they would be between whole civilisations. Would there be anything in these future Hobbesian clashes that the US need fear? Only, Huntington seemed to suggest, if Islam and China got together.
More widespread was the triumphalist interpretation. "That's it! We were in the final, and we just won! The United States is the last superpower! Now the world will want to adopt not just our political philosophy, democracy, but our economic system, free-market corporate capitalism, as well."
Triumphalism triumphed. And the most persuasive, because the least overtly ideological and most benign, exposition of this doctrine was in an article, subsequently expanded into a book, by a youngish classicist-turned-political scientist called Francis Fukuyama. (His family, Japanese Americans, were among those sent to a concentration camp by the Roosevelt administration after Pearl Harbor; forced to sell their market garden at a distress price, they lost almost everything.)
The article that made Fukuyama famous was entitled "The End of History", and it was published in the summer of 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and well before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It argued not overtly in favour of triumphalism, but against pessimism. For decades, people had feared the end of liberal democracy. Now, suddenly, a consensus seemed to be emerging in its favour, "as it conquered rival ideologies like monarchy, fascism and, most recently, communism". So liberal democracy would turn out to be "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution", and so "history" - meaning "history understood as a single coherent evolutionary process" - was over.
"The End of History" was published in The National Interest, the neo-conservative journal founded by Irving Kristol to replace the liberal consensus in American intellectual life with a conservative climate. It developed out of a lecture that Fukuyama was asked to give at the University of Chicago, the home of neoliberal economics, by (among others) Professor Allan Bloom, himself the author of a conservative bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. The lecture was funded, indirectly, by the ideologically committed, conservative John M Olin Foundation. Fukuyama wrote it while on leave from the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, a research institution closely associated with the US air force, where he had worked almost continuously since earning his doctorate in political science from Harvard. He had also been a member of the State Department's policy planning staff during the first Bush administration. It was therefore a product of the conservative establishment that had, by the 1980s, succeeded in Kristol's dream of displacing liberalism as the prevailing American public philosophy.
Fukuyama went on to expand his article into a book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which triumphalism for the American way was rather oddly linked to Hegelian and Nietzschean ideas. It was a smash hit.
Pedants might point out that what Fukuyama meant by "history" was what is usually called "historicism" - the way of looking at human history, as practised by devotees of ideologies such as communism or fascism, Christianity or 19th-century liberalism, that saw it moving to inevitable, preordained conclusions. Scholars did point out that much of the book was a restatement of the argument put forward by the French Hegelian Alexandre Kojeve. (Fukuyama studied in Paris under Jacques Derrida.) Never mind. Overnight, Fukuyama became not just a bestselling author and a celeb, but a brand.
In postwar Paris, intellectual life was dominated by a series of more or less Marxist popes in the tradition of Sartre, Althusser and their (decreasingly Marxist) successors. They were willing to discourse on any subject of passing academic or journalistic interest: Marxism and anthropology, Marxism and God, le marxisme et le football. In the past 20 years, the United States seemed to be developing something similar: the intellectual as celeb, as willing as those French forerunners to pronounce on all the questions of the day.
Thus the second book rolled out by the Fukuyama brand, Trust, followed in 1995. It dealt with social capital, just as the then head of the Kennedy School at Harvard, Robert Putnam, was getting the Ivy League's social scientists excited about that. In 1999, Fukuyama came out with The Great Disruption, all about Silicon Valley and how the internet billionaires would develop a new and happier management style. That was just when the stock market was peaking, the last moment when it was possible to believe that what John Cassidy calls the dotcon was going to be the saviour of civilisation. And now Dr Fukuyama is among us again, marketing another Big Idea: biotechnology and its ethical, social and cultural implications, in a new book called - what do you do for an encore after "the end of history"? - Our Posthuman Future (published by Profile in May).
Stir in the fact that Fuku-yama's pronouncements are funded by such well-heeled but hardly detached organisations as the International Monetary Fund, chief sponsor of the "Washington consensus", and Merrill Lynch, now revealed as laughing its corporate head off about how easily its customers could be conned into buying the "shit" recommended by its analysts. It would be natural to be cynical about Dr Fukuyama and the seven-league boots with which he bestrides the world of the intellect, New York marketing style.
It would be natural, but it would also be more than a little unfair. First of all, it is not Fukuyama but his publishers who promote him as an omnicompetent genius. He seems, from all accounts and evidences, a relatively modest guru. Fifty years old this year, he is married, with three children. He studied classics at Cornell, then did his doctorate in political science at Harvard. He has moved from one prestigious chair to another at Johns Hopkins University.
His manner of argument is pleasant persuasion. He is well-read, and possessed of impressive intellectual powers. More to the point, he has the rare gift of lucidity in explaining complex ideas. And although he is a product and protege of the neo-conservative stable, he is by no means a narrow or predictable ideologue.
The End of History was an almost comically overrated book. It was successful because it spoke to a particular mood in the US, a mood not so much of aggressive triumphalism as of relief. Not only was the cold war over, but Americans could take legitimate pride in the growing acceptance of ideals they liked to think were their own - though, in truth, democracy and capitalism are scarcely American inventions. One of the basic contradictions in neo- conservative doctrine was between chauvinism and pessimism. If everything was so right with US society, as the neo-conservatives insisted, why did they constantly predict the end of civilisation as we knew it? Fukuyama understood that it was time to allow the animal spirits of American exceptionalism a spell of healthy rejoicing. But all of this was dressed up in a resuscitated Hegelianism that was all the more inappropriate because the historicism Fukuyama was trying to demolish came from Hegel.
Fukuyama can at least claim to have turned a powerful intellect on to great questions, and done so in a way that caught the attention of a mass market. He did it again with Trust. In The Great Disruption, he fell for the seductive idea that the instant billionaires of Silicon Valley were different in kind from previous industrial heroes. It turned out that, even if they didn't wear neckties, they had the same antisocial drive for monopoly as J P Morgan, John D Rockefeller or the Watsons of IBM. He also missed the central event in the development of the internet. Yes, it started out as the attractively loose, informal network of like-minded people, giving away their software in friendly exchange. But these idealists were soon overwhelmed by the venture capitalists and the intellectual property lawyers. The computer revolution and the internet were created by the government labs and the cost-plus contracts of the cold war - not, as myth would have it, by carefree graduate students. The web became an opportunity not for the liberation of the many, but for the enrichment of monopolists.
Fukuyama tackles his great subjects from an essentially Candidean standpoint. All is for the best in the best of all possible societies. Yet we should still welcome the universality of his intellectual ambitions. After all, we complain about the pervasive stranglehold of specialisation. We should be delighted when someone comes along who is willing to take on philosophy, history, management studies, sociology and bioethics, and who has cool, clear thoughts to offer on those and other fields - for us to take or leave. He may not be the Last Man, but it would be a pity if he were the last would-be Renaissance man.