4 May 2006

Talal Asad is distinguished professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. His books include Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003). His work is the subject of an essay-collection edited by David Scott & Charles Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors (Stanford University Press, 2006)


Francis Fukuyama’s defence of the universalism of western values and institutions is challenged by modern global political realities, says Talal Asad.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Fukuyama’s afterword to the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man is its conception of a single history of mankind – at once universal and multiple. The question: “What binds the multiplicity of peoples and cultures into a single history?” is indeed a key theme in intellectual history, and was answered by Hegel and later thinkers in evolutionary terms, with European societies representing the future of all others who were not fated simply to die out.

I’m not sure I understand what Fukuyama means when he asks whether western values and institutions have “a universal significance” and when he opposes this to the notion of “the temporary success of a presently hegemonic culture”. Clearly these values and institutions have a universal significance if by this he means that they have spread globally – whether consensually or not. But this doesn’t exclude “universal significance” being seen as the productof a forceful, hegemonising culture. The assertion that with the defeat of communism, capitalist democracy is now the only imaginable future for humanity doesn’t prove that nothing else can emerge. Since nothing is permanent, it is quite possible that this hegemonic political culture will mutate into other, equally hegemonic ones (that is, if we still have a planet fit for humans in the next century).

What is interesting about Fukuyama’s essay, however, is not its contribution to the debate about culture but its assumption that different human societies are running a race towards a more or less recognisable end, and that the relative success or failure of each runner is to be sought in his internal make-up. There exists an ample literaturedemonstrating the complex interactions between political-economic entities – sovereign states that do not control sovereign destinies – but Fukuyama’s essay doesn’t address the subject.

Democracy’s roots

Fukuyama traces “modern democracy”, as do others, to the Christian doctrine of “the universal dignity of man”. I find this odd, because in medieval Latin dignitas referred to the privilege of high office, not to political equality. Christianity did have a notion of universal spiritual worth, but it was always compatible with great social and political inequality. For most writers the roots of modern democracy lie not in Christianity but in classical Greece. Pre-Christian Athens certainly had a (restricted) concept of equal citizenship and (rudimentary) democratic practices, but it had no notion of “the universal dignity of man”. This suggests that modern secular democracy – which gradually, through struggle, replaced Christian inequality in the West – does not depend on the value Fukuyama and others make so much of. What it does depend on is the substitutability of the individual by any other: each voter counts as one and no more than one in the arithmetic of democracy.

If not dignity then perhaps happiness? Fukuyama claims the superiority of capitalist democracy by pointing to the many people who migrate to the rich countries of the north “because they see that the possibilities for human happiness are much greater in a wealthy society than in a poor one”. Yet the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples don’t move; immigrants to western societies are an extremely small proportion of non-western populations. Should we see those who stay put as having no conception of “human happiness”?

Surely the motives for migration are often complicated. They include the desire to escape from dangerous political conditions as well as the desire to earn money abroad to provide for relatives at home, rather than the simple wish for happiness. Not to mention that dreams of finding “happiness” do not always correspond to the reality that meets most immigrants (or native citizens, for that matter) in capitalist democracies.

Democracy’s future

Doubts also apply to Fukuyama’s conception of “the future of democracy” in the non-western world. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the democracy Fukuyama envisions is one that everyone wants: closely connected to a neo-liberal regime “promising universal happiness” and one that is also necessarily “secular”. Christian doctrine, according to the hoary old thesis, has been receptive to democracy because church and state began as separate entities. This is historically inaccurate because the Byzantine church-state was the ground on which central Christian doctrines were formulated. And even in the European middle ages “that separation was never necessary or complete”, as Fukuyama admits. Yet the same can be said of Islamic history (a subject too large to be discussed here).

The alternative argument is to attend not to historical origins but to the contemporary scene, and note that democracy is uniquely absent in the Muslim world. What is the obstacle? Is it Islam? (The faulty reasoning here is to take absence for incapacity.) Fukuyama finds that some Muslim countries are making the transition to economic prosperity and political democracy, and so suggests that the culprit is not Islam but “Arab political culture”.

But consider in this light the electoral victory of Hamas in occupied Palestine in January 2006 – a democratic formation that is being undermined by the European Union and the United States, those models of humanity’s liberal democratic future. There are excuses, of course, but they remain excuses. Evidently there is far more concern by those governments for “Israel’s security” than for the future of the Palestinians.

In his 2004 National Interest article “The Neoconservative moment“, Fukuyama describes Israel as “a small, vulnerable country surrounded by implacable enemies”. Yet Israel is clearly the most powerful (as well as the most democratic) state in the region, the only one possessing nuclear weapons; it has easily won every war with its neighbours, expanded territorially, achieved wide international recognition, and peace treaties with two Arab states with more on the way. It not only has never formally recognised the right of Palestinians to form their own state on all the land stolen from them, but continues unchecked in its violent creation of conditions that are making a future Palestinian state impossible.

It is in this connection that I cite the most important statement in Fukuyama’s entire essay: “There is no reason to think that sovereign liberal democracies cannot commit terrible abuses in their dealings with other nations, or even with respect to their own citizens.” To the representatives of universalism (principally the United States and the European Union) these abuses must appear as the harsh necessities of “realistic” global governance.