The Clash of the Last Man

The Clash of the Last Man.

According to Ulrich Beck:  “Where there is no escape, people ultimately no longer want to think about it.  This eschatological ecofatalism allows the pendulum of private and political moods to swing in any direction.”[1]  Beck’s claims announce a sense of entrapment which produces despair.  However, as Nicholas Lash recognises when pursuing reflections on the difficulty of meaningfully generating a critical hope, not all the voices of the late twentieth-century have been so despondent.[2]  For instance, with the te
aring down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the impending collapse of Soviet Communism and the Cold War, Francis Fukyama in “triumphalistic notes” confidently announced ‘the end of history’.[3]  By this he did not mean that the process of change that we experience as time had come to an end.  Rather, following the early C19th German philosopher Hegel, he was thinking about the ‘meaning’ of things or the meaning of ‘history’.  So he speaks of “history … as a single, coherent, evolutionary process”, and it is this which has come to its end, its fulfilment, its goal at least in ideological terms.[4]  According to Fukuyama, that goal is “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[5]  It is important to note that, for Fukuyama, “the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real world.  But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run”.[6]  Fukuyama’s thesis is that while stable liberal democracies do not yet exist worldwide, philosophically speaking, “liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe.”[7]  And so, unconstrained by Soviet Communism the future would be characterised by the universal admission and implementation of the superiority of liberal democratic politics and the global economy by regimes throughout the world.  “The next century, he insinuated, would be a time when individuals the world over would be at last free to cultivate, express, and develop themselves as individuals and to achieve the kind of recognition that authoritarian and totalitarian political structures since the beginnings of history had denied them. … [D]eadly conflict [was] at an end”.[8]

Yet not only did critics attack his optimism, but many argued that the types of liberal political and economic values he promoted would actually serve to undermine the project of seeking a just society.  For instance, many critics decried “the social injustices wrought by the relentless march of market economies and international corporate interests”.[9]  Others, like George Soros, argued that free-market ideology in fact ironically threatens political democracy:

By promoting market values into a governing principle, market fundamentalism has undermined our society.  Representative democracy presupposes moral values, such as honesty and integrity, particularly in our representatives.  When success takes precedence over integrity, and politics is dominated by money, the political process deteriorates.[10]

Crucially too, others maintain that procedural analyses fail to engage in the fundamental consideration of “the most basic moral convictions that should govern the development of public policies.”[11]  The skin-deepness of a polis without a substantive sense of ‘the good’ could be little more than a thin peaceableness of ever further fracturing cultures.

Possibly the most powerful counter-thesis to Fukyama’s vision came not very long afterward with the highly influential but equally controversial book entitled The Clash of Civilizations by American political scientist of Harvard University, Samuel Huntingdon.[1]  The titular phrase had been alarmistly coined by Bernard Lewis in 1957 in a prediction that by the end of the twentieth century Europe would be Islamic.  One significant matter that distinguishes Huntingdon’s book from Fukuyama’s is the fact that religion features substantially in the political analysis.  Reflecting the secularisation theorists, Fukuyama earlier claimed that “Religion has thus been relegated to the sphere of private life – exiled, it would seem, more or less permanently from European political life except on certain narrow issues like abortion”.[2]  This analysis, even at the time, was somewhat odd given the connections between neo-nationalisms and ethnic religiosities, the two decades of Christian political influence in the United States, and of the burgeoning fervour of the Islamic regime in Iran.  The fact that Fukuyama specifically mentions the (western) European scene may mitigate the weakness, for as Carl Raschke observes, “Christianity as a motivating cultural force in Western civilization, mainly in Europe but also to a surprising degree in the United States, is largely spent.”[3]  Likewise, Charles Taylor recognises that “the countries of western Europe have mainly become secular – even those who retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space.”[4]

The reappearance of the religious in Huntingdon’s reflections, however, is nonetheless troubling.  He describes an impending clash of global value systems between the West and the Middle East anchored in conflicting religious belief structures, particularly where Western versions are politically domesticated products of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 whose polis is nationally governed in a way that conflicts with Islamic theopolitics.  According to Raschke, “What was at stake was no longer [as with Fukuyama] economic prosperity but ultimate truth anchored in the claims of faith.”[5]  Of course, what he has assumed is that there is something of a singular Islam that receives and contests modernity, and Western modernity at that, in a uniform way; and equally he problematically assumes that there is a single West, united behind a single understanding of truth, meaning and purpose.  Even the United States is politically fractured with regard to the determinative identifying political myth of American exceptionalism.  As Edward Said acknowledges, “Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolithic.”[6]

Over the past decade Huntingdon’s book has generated further friction and tensions with Islam in the West, suspicions that continue not to be deeply unwelcoming of the Muslim in the West:  according to Huntingdon in generalising “reductive and brutal” mood,[7] “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism.  It is Islam.”[8]  This kind of claim strengthens the hand of those secularising forces that now intensify their attempts to keep religious traditions out of the public setting – whether that be the publics of politics, economics, or education.  So John Rawls, for example, argues that “religious, philosophical, and moral convictions … are part of what we call ‘non-public identity,’ matters that citizens may deal with in their ‘personal affairs.’”[9]  Of course, that refusal of religions to have public voices is complicated by the fact that many Western politicians, and not only in the United States, appeal to religious traditions come time for electioneering or at moments of national stress, such as the outpouring of grief over Lady Diana’s death.  As Lash observes, “Notwithstanding the best efforts of d’Hollbach or Feuerbach, however, people have not ceased to ‘believe in God’.  But belief has never been so dangerously ambivalent.  Each US dollar bill still bears the message ‘In God we trust’”.[10]  Equally, more self-reflective consideration of the nature of ‘civil religion’ is required, of the national disciplining of desire which performs an ontological function beyond the pragmatics of a realpolitik.  Moreover, there remain notable pressures to continue to maintain a particular kind of religious presence, largely a conservative Evangelical Christian one, in the ‘secular’ public education-system in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales.  The Special Religious Education, or SRE for short, and the Chaplaincy programme both continue to have some prominent and powerful political supporters.

[1] Samuel P. Huntingdon, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[2] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 271.  A good definition of is usually meant here by the term ‘secularisation’ is provided by sociologist of religion Peter Berger:  “for most purposes it can be defined quite simply as a process in which religion diminishes in importance both in society and in the consciousness of individuals. … Put simply, the idea has been that the relation between modernity and religion is inverse – the more of the former, the less of the latter….” [Peter L. Berger, ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’, in Linda Woodhead, et al. (eds.), Religions in the Modern World (London & New York:  Routledge, 2002), 291-8 (291)]  According to Tasal Asad, secularism demands a distinction between private reason and public principle, with the locating of the ‘religious’ in the category of the private [Formations of the Secular:  Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003), 8].

[3] Raschke, 24.

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass., and London:  The Belknap Press, 2007), 2.

[5] Raschke, 16.

[6] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London:  Chatto & Windus, 1993), xxix.

[7] Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship:  Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2009), 143.

[8] Huntingdon, 217.

[9] John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness:  Political Not Metaphysical’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 14.3 (1985), 241.

[10] Nicholas Lash, Theology for Pilgrims (London:  DLT, 2008), 40.

[1] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society:  Towards a New Modernity (London, 1992), 37.

[2] Nicholas Lash, ‘Beyond the End of History?’, Concilium 5 (1994), 47-56.

[3] See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (London:  Hamish Hamilton, 1989); ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest (Summer 1989), 3-18, available at, consulted 05-01-01; and ‘The End of History:  By Way of an Introduction’ (1992),…t/philosophy/works/us/fukuyama.htm, consulted 05-01-01.  Citation from Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship:  Becoming Postmaterialistic Citizens (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2009), 59.

[4] Fukuyama, ‘The End of History:  By Way of an Introduction’.

[5] Francis Fukuyma, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest (Summer 1989), 3-18, available at, consulted 05-01-01.

[6] Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’.

[7] Fukuyama, ‘The End of History:  By Way of an Introduction’, xiii.  On the one hand Fukuyama wants to use empirical affairs by way of justifying his thesis.  So, he claims, there has been a “move toward political freedom around the globe” which would have been everywhere accompanied, “sometimes followed, sometimes preceded” by “a liberal revolution in economic thought.”  On the other hand, the “good news” remains at the level of  regulating ideal that cannot be measured against any historical or empirical sets of affairs, a trans-historical ideal.  Derrida complains, “Depending on how it works to his advantage and serves his thesis, Fukuyama defines liberal democracy here as an actual reality and there as a simple ideal. … Even as we take seriously the idea that a heralding sign or a pomise constitutes an irreducible event, we must nevertheless guard against confusing these two types of event.  A thinking of the event is no doubt what is most lacking from such a discourse.” [Derrida, 1994, 62f.]

[8] Carl Raschke, Globochrist:  The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2008), 15f.

[9] Raschke, 17.

[10] George Soros, cited in Marc Breslow, ‘George Soros:  Beware Market Fundamentalism’ (1999),, consulted 05-01-01.  “I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society.  The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat” [Soros, ‘The Capitalist Threat’, Atlantic Monthly 279.2 (February 1997), 45-58,, consulted 05-01-01].

[11] Ronald F. Thiemann, Religion in Public Life:  A Dilemma for Democracy (Washington, D.C.:  Georgetown University Press, 1996), 11.



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