One of Mencius Moldbug’s more famous and infamous slogans is the audacious “America is a communist country.” As rhetoric and provocation it has much to recommend it. It is hard not to look at the United States government differently after realizing how much of the 1928 platform of the Communist Party of the USA has been adopted and feels modern, whereas major goals of the other political parties, such as bimetallism and racial segregation, appear scandalously dated. The prominence of so many communists in high places throughout the last century of American politics, from Alger Hiss to Bill Ayers, also seems telling. Yet the living, breathing Marxist communists in this country are dissatisfied as ever, and in some cases declaring that they are worse off than they have ever been.
Is this just because these Marxists are naturally catankerous and fiery people? In the most endearing ways, yes. They have ideals, and they’ll accept nothing less. Still, our living, breathing communists also have a point beyond merely expressing fervent idiosyncrasies. Even if much of their former platforms has been adopted, the spirit does seem missing.
Look around and ask if your world is communist in spirit. The answer for a communist is no. Formally, the workers have been granted ownership of a surprising amount of the means of production through retirement funds, pensions, and the like, but be honest–the pensions are hollow, underfunded: looted. A test of genuine ownership in the Marxist sense is absence of alienation–do Americans report alienation? Of course. Next, let’s examine that root “commune.”
Where is the solidarity in our lives? Where is community? We have a society, but communists find it fragmented and status-obsessed with alarming financial inequality. Though we do have social safety nets and social redistribution, many among us seem glorified sharecroppers essentially in slavery to private purchasers of collection rights on publicly subsidized debt. Perhaps what we have is a weak form of socialism and not communism?
No, neoreaction’s critics from the left will say that what we have is “neoliberalism.” Semi-liberal market democracy. They have a point.
Perhaps the most derided expression of neoliberalism’s present perceived hegemony is Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” essay, infamous for declaring in the early 90s that the victory of capitalist liberal democracy is the end of history. Denigrators say Fukuyama jumped the gun in announcing supremacy of liberal democracy over all competing forms of government in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. They point to continued war for power’s sake alone, environmental catastrophes, and Clashes of Civilizations between cultures that refuse to assimilate peacefully into a global multicultural superstate. I have to confess I felt it absurd, too, until I read it. Clearly, history is not over, and liberal democracy still faces threats.
However, they miss the point and Fukuyama appears happy to let them. He is an admirer of Leo Strauss. In his interviews, he speaks carefully. Watch him in the BBC discussion on the 25th anniversary of the essay—look at minute 11. Is he really concerned about defending his thesis? He disputes facts that his opponents assert, but a deeper mirth in his eyes seems to say he’s more entertained than threatened.
This could be arrogance, and if we aren’t feeling charitable, that’s enough to damn him. But first go back to the book following up the essay, which is not titled The End of History? but rather The End of History and the Last Man.
The last man? You hear Nietzsche. This is not election cycle time horizon, goldfish punditry. Something old—and something suspiciously German—is at play; the essay’s thesis is more subtle than a paean to the neoliberal/neoconservative American form of government. The initial essay’s stimulus was a then very recent historical event, the end of the Cold War, but the true mark was a 200-year-old theory of history grounding Marxism from the beginning: Hegelian absolute idealism. Far from being early to his conclusions, Fukuyama might also be considered a century late. Possibly two.
Listen again to Fukuyama’s first speech in the video linked above.
Well, you have to understand the term end properly. End meant not termination, the question was, in the grand philosophical sense of the evolution of human societies, in what direction was history pointing. And for a hundred years, progressive intellectuals believed it was pointing towards a communist utopia, and I made the simple observation in 1989 that it didn’t look like were were gonna to get there, that if we were going to end up at any place it was going to be something like liberal democracy and a market economy, and I think that that still is the most likely termination point of the whole modernization process 25 years later. (vide supra)
The End of History is an end more in the sense of telos than termination. Furthermore, it is not our telos, but the telos of a process called ‘history’. It is the telos specifically of the progressive, modernizing, Hegelian conception of history: history-as-progress.
Fukuyama’s thesis is not that history has finished, but that the end target of history-as-progress is liberal market democracy rather than communism. When he disputes his opponents’ facts in the video, he can feel secure because they hardly touch his true thesis, let alone rebut it.
In his book, he argues that the apparent universality and terminality of liberal democracy as opposed to communism arises from the weaving of two political threads.
The first thread is the progress of the natural sciences, which privileges particular liberal socioeconomic arrangements for their ability to accumulate and exert power. He argues that this natural power imbalance allows socially and economically liberal societies to dominate others and tempts other societies to mimic them. This is a commonly asserted, often contested point; I will not rely on its validity here but only report that Fukuyama correctly anticipates many of the most familiar criticisms, so his discussion remains interesting despite relying on this often-weak foundational premise.
The second thread is the human ambition to receive validating moral recognition from others, which arguably causes inevitable conflict in all societies with structural political inequalities. This latter is more rarely described than the first, so allow me to quote Fukuyama’s introduction of his crucial term for this ambition, thymos.
The desire for recognition may at first appear to be an unfamiliar concept, but it is as old as the tradition of Western philosophy, and constitutes a thoroughly familiar part of the human personality. It was first described by Plato in the Republic, when he noted that there were three parts to the soul, a desiring part, a reasoning part, and a part that he called thymos, or “spiritedness.” Much of human behavior can be explained as a combination of the first two parts, desire and reason: desire induces men to seek things outside themselves, while reason or calculation shows them the best way to get them. But in addition, human beings seek recognition of their own worth, or of the people, things, or principles that they invest with worth… The desire for recognition, and the accompanying emotions of anger, shame, and pride, are parts of the human personality critical to the political life. According to Hegel, they are what drive the whole historical process. (Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 2006, p. xvi-xvii)
Fukuyama goes on to paraphrase Hegel to the effect that in authoritarian societies, the relationships between masters and slaves can never satisfy the desire for recognition. The slave does not receive validating recognition at all and the masters are only recognized as masters by slaves, not other masters, which is unsatisfying. On the other hand, in a democratic state all citizens recognize the dignity and humanity of every other citizen. Thus democracy satisfies thymos uniquely elegantly.
Obviously this is an oversimplification, and Fukuyama does not defend the clumsiest elaborations of this view. The essential idea he explores in depth is this: democratic universal dignity appears capable of satisfying thymos in a uniquely symmetric way, so it does not inevitably give rise to interpersonal political conflicts that destabilize the democratic order. Thus, it serves as a rational stable state, or teleological end point, for political history understood as rational progress.
This is not the Scottish Enlightenment argument that everyone should subordinate their personal, conflicting prides and bigotries to cooperation via enlightened self-interest, but an alternative Continental argument that the best way to satisfy the political will for recognition of one’s particular chauvinisms is universal and reciprocal recognition for others’ bigotries, as formalized in rights-granting democracies. It is not the sleep of politics underneath philistinism, but rather unlimited but tame activism for ever, for all.
The book outlines this case briefly, but spends the majority of its words exploring objections to it, actively seeking other possibilities past this End of History-as-Progress. Fukuyama’s most critical objections rely on the last man of his book’s title, an image Nietzsche used to illustrate a shared folly of capitalism, liberalism, and communism over 125 years ago. Here is his introductory summary:
But is the recognition available to citizens of contemporary liberal democracies “completely satisfying”? The long term future of liberal democracy, and the alternatives to it that might one day arise, depend above all on the answer to this question. In Part V we sketch two broad responses, from the Left and Right, respectively. The Left would say that universal recognition in a liberal democracy is necessarily incomplete because capitalism creates economic inequality and requires a division of labor that ipso facto implies unequal recognition. In this respect, a nation’s absolute level of prosperity provides no solution, because there will continue to be those who are relatively poor and therefore invisible as human beings to their fellow citizens. Liberal democracy, in other words, continues to recognize people unequally.
The second, and in my view more powerful, criticism of universal recognition comes from the Right that was profoundly concerned with the leveling effects of the French Revolution’s commitment to human equality. This Right found its most brilliant spokesman in the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose views were in some respects anticipated by that great observer of democratic societies, Alexis de Tocqueville. Nietzsche believed that modern democracy represented not the self-mastery of former slaves, but the unconditional victory of the slave and a kind of slavish morality. This typical citizen of a liberal democracy was a “last man” who, schooled by the founders of modern liberalism, gave up prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in favor of comfortable self-preservation. Liberal democracy produced “men without chests,” composed of desire and reason but lacking thymos, clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long-term self-interest. The last man had no desire to be recognized as greater than others, and without such desire no excellence or achievement was possible. Content with his happiness and unable to feel any sense of shame for being unable to rise above those wants, the last man ceased to be human. (Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 2006, p. xxi-xxii)
The alt-right insult “cuckservative” is directed precisely at these men without chests. Trump, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a man of thymos, a man with a broad chest and “high energy,” who again and again confounds the expectations of this era’s best approximations of last men.
True to form, these are too busy fiddling with statistical and economic estimates of long-term ”enlightened self-interest” to even understand the hunger so many feel to “make America great again,” a succinct expression of frustrated thymos. The few explanations that the left offers blame inequality, even as the right insists again and again that no, we don’t want equality, we want to be great—to build great buildings, to revive or found whole industries anew, to escape this planet’s flyspeck of a gravity well.
This concept should therefore be familiar to my readers. From another perspective, these chest-less last men are the wreckers who will not work themselves to Stakhanovite extremes for the good of the Motherland. These are the men who use feminism as an excuse to shirk responsibility. These are the liberal Zionists who will back every civil rights movement, unless it contradicts their own Israel-chauvinism.
Last men are the ones who give lip service to universal equality but are satisfied to work little further once they achieve their own minimal dignity and material security.
Fukuyama claims that the reason neoliberal democracy is a satisfactory End of History, so Marxist Communism is unnecessary, is that men without chests on the way to becoming last men are not so offended by economic inequality that they really want further revolution. So long as their basic needs for food and flattery are taken care of. Add to that the apparent superiority of market economies over command economies for actually putting food on the table and entertainment on the eyeballs, and neoliberalism makes a fine end point for history.
Needless to say, this is not the stuff of manifestos. It lacks ambition—that’s the point.
This is a persistent observation and frustration of Marxist intellectuals from Marx through the present day, not only an idiosyncratic thesis of Fukuyama’s. The idealistic vanguard is often frustrated by the more complacent rank and file. Luxemburg’s fiery pamphlets against Bernstein’s reformism famously exemplify this struggle. Trotsky’s conflicts against Stalin’s socialism in one country do also. And where shall we place Slaughter’s writing on revolutionary leadership?
If I am lucky enough to have wavering Marxists reading this article today, I urge them to take this issue seriously. In the early twentieth century, it was easy to believe this was only a matter of education and that the intellectuals would soon convert the working class to proper revolutionary fervor, but these days it appears that in fact the intellectuals were fated to the reverse. All too many have instead dulled their own ambitions and been tamed nearly into last men themselves.
The CIA bet large on this by sponsoring pet literary publications and modern art projects in the wake of Word War II. The gamble is vindicated. The American state maintained its power through every decade of the Cold War, and when an occasional outbreak of revolutionary thymos occurs today, it seems easy enough to discharge into whatever identity politics purity spiral du jour is convenient. The struggle to achieve prominence in these will rarely interfere with the deepest power structures in our society. Though many on the right assume that foundation funding of the left shows support, perhaps just as often it indicates an effort to tame.
This strategy of manipulation belies the essential tragedy of thymos in neoliberal society: for a man with the greatest desire for glory, the best way to achieve it is often to help others be satisfied in complacency.
Consumer goods manufacturers prove their genius by improving processes to lower prices, making modest life more satisfying for the less driven. Politicians drum up support by seeding resentment or entitlement when they already have a role in mind to focus and channel the public’s new desires towards their own advancement. Our most famous artists are our greatest crowd entertainers; our most famous comedians are masters of snark and self-satisfaction.
Though ever fewer remain ambitious, these few still amass power. If fewer try to consciously order their own lives, more control of their lives will come from elsewhere. Perhaps it will be a paternalistic mayor forbidding smoking and large sodas, perhaps it will be EU regulation of what had been traditional cheesemaking. Vain thymos will interfere anywhere it finds no resistance.
Therefore, far from being a path to a truly equal society, “one herd and no shepherd,” the progressive path leads again and again to oligarchy. The sheep do not mind the shepherd, really, so long as he does not herd them too clumsily. They are content to forget he exists. At worst, a red cape will suffice.
And so what is the need for full, Marxist Communism over and above neoliberal democracy?
The last men don’t need it; their complacency makes economic inequality bearable. The men with chests don’t want it; they would be dissatisfied with equality. The remainder are those who actually dream of equality for the world for its own sake… and self-deceivers actually thirsting for recognition as holier-than-thou. Historically, the latter appear to be the majority by far.
I’m convinced by Fukuyama’s thesis. This, I think he’s right about: the dream and specter of Marxist Communism is done. Though it lives on in attenuated forms, as a revolutionary social vision it has succumbed to the last men. The sex appeal is gone; the movement has grayed.
So we might agree, America is not really a communist country, it’s merely neoliberal. We might agree, Moldbug is insisting that what is clearly a gray, lumpy manatee is actually an exquisite mermaid. We all know mermaids have never been seen on earth and neither has true communism. Whether either ever will, we leave up to posthuman genetic engineering.
However, if you imagine yourself as a desperate, sex-starved sailor looking too far out over a glaring sea too long, you might see how a manatee would be mistaken for a beautiful mermaid. This is how many legends formed. Similarly, if you imagine yourself as Marx, an obsessive Hegelian looking too far into the future of industrial ecology too long, you might start taking the neoliberalism we have today for communism. You might mistake the possibility of retirement and pension-owned stock markets, universal suffrage democracy, and substantial redistributive taxes for the possibility of a beautiful new form of government.
In fact, manatees are ungainly and blubbery sea-cows, and in fact, our wonderful redistributive government with universal suffrage amounts to a sclerotic and uninspiring oligarchy for all its democratic trappings. Yet in an important sense, mermaids never were anything more than manatees. And in the same sense, communism never has been anything but hypocritical, redistributive rule by the few. This was Moldbug’s definition: “democracy without authentic political opposition.”
This point has been made again and again since Marx’s polemical-historical futurology first sparked a fire among the intellectuals of his day. Schumpeter put this criticism especially well in writing, as did Kolakowski. Stalin, Mao, and Chavez made the point in practice.
And in this sense, even committed Marxists should now understand why we call America a communist country. If they continue to insist on seeing True Communist mermaids out on the horizon, we’ll keep pointing to the neoliberal manatees by the boat. Manatees who often self-identify as mermaids, in fact…
Does that contradict America’s being a plutocratic country, too? The point is this: whether we’re talking about capitalism or communism as they exist today, either one, and we still talk about the same uninspiring masses primarily seeking contentment and freedom from responsibility. The persistence of cynical, redistributive, oligarchic bureaucracy politics in practice. The same hollow surface-democratic materialism without the power to cultivate virtue and hope among its people. The End of American History, as it stands, is White Noise.
Expecting to improve a people merely by satisfying their needs for material pleasure and flattery is a fundamental error. It does not lead to greater things. Satisfying such needs in our society does not often make time for philosophy or invention, it makes time for TV.
Contra the usual assumptions of our contemporary culture, the needs for food, shelter, and self-esteem are not the most basic needs. This can be seen in any story of actual privation, from POWs to shipwrecks, or of excess, from Buddha to Des Esseintes. Virtue—courage, resourcefulness, and will—is as important as and often more sustaining than external goods. Without moderation no amount of food will be enough and without daring no amount of security will calm the mind for greater things.
This presents a challenge to seek other hopes than merely different patterns of resource allocation and self-satisfaction.
Fukuyama himself recognizes how the liberal last man might be overcome. Deep within his book, we read an explicit suggestion:
Thus, despite the apparent absence of systematic alternatives to liberal democracy at present, some new authoritarian alternatives, perhaps never before seen in history, may assert themselves in the future. These alternatives, if they come about, will be created by two distinct groups of people: those who for cultural reasons experience persistent economic failure, despite an effort to make economic liberalism work, and those who are inordinately successful at the capitalist game. (Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 2006, p. 235)
Neoreaction aims at the second of these paths. Fukuyama is not blind to our hopes; few of today’s observant intellectuals are.
So, we look beyond history as a universal progression from low needs to higher morals. We look beyond the End of History-as-Progress because in so many ways it is already here; we admit that the redistributive oligarchy we have in America today is as materially satisfying a communism as has ever been achieved. The Marxist ideal shows no signs of being approached closer in any more formally communist government, and what grounds remain at this point for thinking that the quest for this so-called True Communism is any more realistic than the hunt for a mythical mermaid?
We envision something other. A new End of American History. The seemingly endless brawl between capitalism and communism is, to us, a diversion from the more important struggle between greatness and nihilism. If we neoreactionaries were to succeed according to our enemies’ most absurd fears and literally restore the Stuarts, yet merely gorge ourselves complacently in the new monarchy like the last men—we would have won nothing at all.