It turns out that Francis Fukuyama, widely mocked post-9/11 for his proclamation that history has "ended," was right after all – but not in the way his journalistic interpreters imagined. Fukuyama’s thesis was that the ideological struggle over the forms of governance had been decisively won by the forces of liberal democracy: this, he averred, was the lesson of the Soviet implosion, and the earlier destruction of the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yet he did not say, as widely believed, that the passing of history would mean the end of international conflicts:
"There would still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence, since those are impulses incompletely played out, even in parts of the post-historical world. Palestinians and Kurds, Sikhs and Tamils, Irish Catholics and Walloons, Armenians and Azeris, will continue to have their unresolved grievances. This implies that terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda. But large-scale conflict must involve large states still caught in the grip of history, and they are what appear to be passing from the scene."
Nationalism, ensconced in the religious and ethnic identities that would replace the ideologies of the twentieth century, would still retain its hypnotic power, and perhaps even get a fillip from the "boredom" ensuing from a world reduced to economic calculation and the care-taking of "the museum of human history," as he put it. In this sense, Fukuyama has been proven right: the conflicts that are tearing apart the Middle East, for example, fit his scenario to a tee. What I fear he got wrong is the idea that these conflicts will not involve large states, and that the scale of potential tragedy is much bigger than he dared imagine.
Nationalism has indeed returned with a vengeance, and it is rearing its head on a global scale, from eastern Europe to Eastasia. The dangers it poses are equal in scope to anything that confronted us during the cold war era, if not more so.
Where Fukuyama was wrong – very wrong – was his overoptimistic take on the evolution of large states which were supposedly not "caught in the grip of history." Recent events tell a different story.
Take India, where Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has just won an overwhelming victory which has propelled that nation of 1.269 million square miles and 1.237 billion inhabitants to the right – the far right – for the first time in modern history. Modi is a charismatic demagogue whose tenure as governor of Gujarat was marked by a pogrom of Muslims carried out by Hindu fanatics who murdered thousands as Modi’s police looked on. As a result Washington denied Modi a visa and he was barred from entering US territory.
Modi is a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a cultish paramilitary group of ultra-nationalist Hindu activists founded in the 1930s and modeled along the same lines as various right-wing ethno-nationalist groups in the ascendant at the time: the Italian fascists, the German National Socialists, and the right-wing Zionist followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Gandhi’s assassin was an RSS militant, and the group has been at the center of the anti-Muslim riots that have wracked India in recent times.
At the core of RSS-BJP ideology is the idea of Hindutva, which idealizes Indian ethnicity and upholds a mythology that portrays Indians as the first pure "Aryan" race, which supposedly sprang from the Arctic region eons ago. Partisans of Hindutva adopted the swastika – an ancient Indian symbol – as the emblem of their movement, and the constitution of RSS specifies that the leader of the cult must be a blue-eyed Sarasvat Brahmin.
I have written about Hindutva here and here: suffice to say in this context that the prospect of these fanatics with an absolute majority in the Indian parliament and complete control of the government ought to scare the pants off of anyone who was hoping that history had indeed ended. India, after all, is a nuclear-armed state, facing off against nuclear-armed Pakistan, a Muslim country. The prospect of a man like Modi at the head of the Indian state ought to send chills up everyone’s spine – after all, if you really believe in reincarnation the idea of a nuclear war isn’t so off-putting, now is it?
The scariness is hardly limited to India: all Eastasia is the scene of a frightening nationalist revival, where confrontation with China’s rising power is generating a dangerous backlash. In Vietnam, thousands of rioters recently burned 15 Chinese-owned factories, killing one and wounding a hundred, in response to China’s construction of an oil rig in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Hanoi. And don’t forget the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, in which China invaded Vietnam and took several border towns in response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that toppled the Khmer Rouge.
While Vietnam’s Communist government has tolerated some independent political expression, they quickly cracked down when the demonstrations turned violent – just as the Chinese government has cracked down on anti-foreigner demonstrations that have broken out periodically over the years. In both cases, a dark undercurrent of militant nationalism threatens to upend the rule of these Communist regimes, which have run out of ideological steam and stand in fear of resurgent nationalism cracking the thin veneer of archaic Leninism.
The nationalist surge is hardly confined to Eastasia: in Israel, where right-wing nationalists have captured the government, forces to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Zionist-nationalist Likud party are on the rise. Interestingly, Netanyahu was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Modi on his victory.
In eastern Europe, too, the nationalist monster is reawakening: dark forces that were kept under wraps in the days of the Warsaw Pact are reasserting themselves in Ukraine. There openly neo-Nazi movements, which look to the legacy of Nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandera, are not only rioting in the streets – they’re in the government!
While the Western media has dutifully echoed the US State Department line that the putsch in Ukraine was carried out by "pro-Western" liberals, the reality is that the shock troops of the "national revolution" (as the Ukrainian fascists are calling it) was carried out with muscle supplied by the radical nationalist Svoboda party, formerly the "Social National" party, and Right Sector, a violent paramilitary gang of skinheads, criminals, and professional thugs openly committed to fascism and "ethnic purity" as a political ideal. Combining devotion to Ukrainian ethnicity with brazen anti-Semitism – which they are now seeking to deny, with some invaluable help from Yale professor Tim Snyder, The New Republic, various neocons, and the US government – Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists are being used as a stalking horse for the US and the European Union in their campaign to restart the cold war with Russia.
Washington’s failure to see the horrific danger posed by these worrying trends is underscored in Ukraine, where US taxpayer dollars are going to subsidize a movement that traces its lineage back to the Brownshirts of the 1930s. The US thinks it can ride this wave and not fall into the deep – a tragic miscalculation that can only end in disaster.
Aggressive nationalism has been the main driver of wars in the twentieth century and promises to wreak even more havoc in the twenty-first. However, not all nationalism is aggressive: in America, for instance, it has been "isolationist," (i.e. pro-peace), as in the run-up to World War II, when many conservatives (and liberals, like Charles Beard) described themselves as nationalists and yet wanted to stay out of wars. They wanted to put "America First," as they put it, aloof from foreign squabbles and safe behind an impregnable wall of defenses. In China, too, nationalism was formerly characterized by indifference to the outside world: it was in this context that the horrific "Cultural Revolution" took place, a violence that was directed inward rather than across borders.
The revival of nationalism in the new millennium is not of that sort, unfortunately: it is, instead, based on hatred of the foreigner, the Other, who must be eliminated before the nation can be secured. And you’ll note that these movements are being generated in countries where economic deprivation, corruption, and authoritarian governments give ordinary people few outlets of political expression.
Nationalist ideology imbues its adherents with three ingredients of ideological self-actualization otherwise unavailable to them: a sense of identity, an overriding mission, and the illusion of unity with a greater whole. In a world where modernity dissolves traditional ties and threatens to overwhelm the individual in a mishmash of competing influences, militant nationalism brings clarity out of confusion, defines one’s friends and one’s enemies, and promises an impossible purity. As such, it is a potent force – and the deadly enemy of liberalism.
It also raises the threat of future wars – and not that far in the future, if I may be so bold as to proffer a prediction. As Fukuyama put it at the end of his famous essay:
"I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again."
As we approach the centenary of the start of World War I, I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a sense of déjà vu. It looks like history is restarting – with a bloody vengeance.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.