“History ended in 1989. In 2008, the economic order was shaken. The political reckoning arrived in 2016. By 2020, the End of History was over.”
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the introduction to The End of the End of History, which was published in June by Zero Books.
at soup. Xenophobic insinuations. Toppled statues. Hazmat suits. Bizarre weather events. Wildfire riots. Improvised police states. Mass quarantine.
The strange end times we find ourselves in are more like a B-Movie apocalypse than the orderly sequence of “events” found in history books. But the weirdness of contemporary life is not only a product of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. If we look at the doomy memes about 2021, we see they are functionally identical to ones from 2020, 2019—or 2016 for that matter. Indeed, remember when all those Boomer celebrities started dying in the same year as that failed Turkish coup, random Jihadist terror across Europe, the Zika outbreak, Trump’s victory, and the Brexit vote? Those days when everyone dug up that Lenin quotation about decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen?
This was the End of the End of History. It was announced in 2016. 2020 made it definitive.
We stand at a pivotal moment. Amid the chaos, states of emergency, and extraordinary state responses, we are undergoing an epochal political shift. The richest and most powerful states in the West are fumbling their way out of neoliberalism. Such regime change had almost been forgotten as a possibility—unless it was applied at the end of a gun in distant lands.
Or at least, we thought that if regime change were to happen, it would be different. The Coronavirus outbreak coincided with the undoing of a surge of left-wing attempts to gain state power. The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the collapse of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president came within four months of each other, either side of the initial lockdowns. These attempts, called “left-populism,” aimed to move beyond neoliberalism, to defend welfare, and to create a new, collective, and egalitarian politics. They felt promising; they made it feel like maybe politics was back, after a long time away.
The failure of left-populism, strangely, happened at the same time as right-wing governments adopted policies that strongly departed from neoliberal orthodoxy. Donald Trump passed a $3 trillion stimulus package, while Boris Johnson’s government announced £100 billion in extra spending to pay 80% of wages and support the self-employed. Policies the Left had been proposing were recuperated by the Right, and this was done at just the moment of the greatest popular demobilization in history: the lockdowns. There is deep irony to this, since one of the main problems with left-populism was that it has tried to do socialism without the masses.
Societies have been withdrawing from politics for some time; over the past decades, trade unions, political parties, and civic organizations have all become empty shells. (1) The inevitable consequence was that things became steadily worse. But for a while, nothing major seemed to change. Globalization meant harmony and growth—at least on the surface.
Then, suddenly, the world slipped out of control. Crisis was back. But with the masses only playing a bit-part, it all became deranged; politics fluctuated wildly, unanchored from the great agglomeration of people within political organizations that had characterized much of the 20th century. But at least the craziness made people think about politics again.
To grasp the notion that politics was back, and to understand the profound sense of disorder that is a feature of our age, we need to go back to the End of History. This was the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which marked the symbolic end of a world divided between communism and capitalism, and the total victory of the latter. Only when we recall the tedium of the age known as the End of History—that sense that staid neoliberal democracy was all there was—can we grasp how shocking the return of politics since 2016 has been.
I Hate Myself, and I Want to Buy
Reflecting on the dawn of a new era in the early 1990s, the historian Eric Hobsbawm noted that the “short twentieth century” “ended in a global disorder whose nature was unclear, and without an obvious mechanism for either ending it or keeping it under control.” This impotence was not, however, only due to the complexity of the problems themselves. After all, talking up complexity is the trick technocrats have been pulling for three decades with the sole purpose of lowering expectations. Rather, the impotence lay “in the apparent failure of all programs, old and new, for managing or improving the affairs of the human race.”
Moreover, we were left with no force even promising to do so. Surveying the scene, Hobsbawm observed a world divided between “stable, strong and favored states [that] might think themselves immune from the insecurity and carnage” and those found outside the Western bubble. However, various new threats were on the horizon—terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, mass migration, environmental degradation, and so on—that might come to puncture that bubble.
Outside, in what was still being called the “Third World,” albeit by then anachronistically, there were various movements that did not hold to the universalizing ideals that structured the Cold War conflict (liberal capitalism or communism). Instead, these movements sought merely a secure identity and social order in a disintegrating world; ethnic- or religious-based movements proliferated. These might even succeed in overthrowing regimes, Hobsbawm noted, but, like the interwar fascism that also revolted against modern dissolution, they had no real solutions to problems. Worse—because this applied the world over, to all political organizations, it was not even clear that political ideas were capable of generating organized national mass movements.
For their part, citizens largely seemed resigned to leave affairs of the state to the “political class.” What proliferated in the wake of this withdrawal was an “amalgam of slogans and emotions” that could barely be called ideology: identity politics and xenophobia.
So, what has changed since 1994 when Hobsbawm’s work was first published? The disorder is only too apparent now, and movements for “secure identity and social order” seem an adequate descriptor for the political forces that rule many Western nations, such as national-populism. But to see only uninterrupted disorder would be to ignore precisely the settled order that governed the End of History era. Sure, there were “new threats,” but none that would put into question liberal democracy, precisely because the new threats did not carry any serious program for an alternative and better means of organizing society. The New World Order pronounced by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 promised peace and cooperation under the aegis of American leadership—indeed, its total hegemony. But it was not only in geopolitical terms that stability would be achieved. The whole way that national politics operated was premised on the withdrawal of the citizenry from active engagement. In its place was “post-politics,” a form of government that tries to foreclose political contestation by emphasizing consensus, “eradicating” ideology, and ruling by recourse to evidence and expertise rather than interests or ideals. Underpinning all of this was an economic regime—neoliberalism—that privileged private competition above everything else. The state’s role was merely to regulate market exchanges and to ensure the latter’s proper functioning. Ever-expanding and untrammeled international commerce—globalization—would provide a bounty to the winners. And really, everyone would be a winner: A rising tide lifts all boats.
This notion had such success that it naturalized economic relations. The big questions, about what is produced and who gets how much, were settled. Politics, then, had little to attend to, and accordingly the state’s capacities atrophied. With nothing to fight over, citizens withdrew from the public realm, to focus on their private affairs. It seemed as if Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes had given way to a different age, the Age of the Self. Pursuing one’s private desires in the market was the sum total of human experience. The victor of the 20th century ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was, in fact, consumerism—“the ‘ism’ that won.”
Of course, it was capitalism that really won. But shorn of a systemic alternative, even the notion that we lived in a system called “capitalism” receded from view. Contemporary society came to be seen as a natural order instead of the product of conflictual historical development. That was, until the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Then, suddenly, this autonomous thing we referred to as “the economy” was called into question. That event marked the first major interruption to the “End of History” proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1989 upon the collapse of “really existing socialism.” Events seemed to accelerate. But even so, it took a little while for the dislocations of the GFC to find conscious political manifestation.
The early 2010s saw protests, new movements, and even (failed) revolutions. But the real denouement, for the centers of global capitalism, arrived in 2016. The election of Donald Trump and the victory of “Leave” in the European Union referendum in Britain marked the end to any complacency about the permanence of prevailing models of liberal democracy, globalization, or neoliberalism. Those events were the most prominent instances of the most important force that arose to challenge the post-political consensus: anti-politics.
In various spots around the world, including in the nerve centers of global capitalism, people were proclaiming “they do not represent us!” The neoliberal establishments that held court in most of the world were shaken. The authority of practices as varied as journalism, economics, and the law also became corroded due to declining credibility. The yawning trust deficit that characterized so much social and political discourse was a product of the instrumentalization of expertise during the End of History. Managerial technocracy purported to have the answers, but it was fatally damaged, first by the GFC and then by Trump and Brexit in 2016.
The four years that followed were marked by precisely that sense of disorder to which Hobsbawm testified in the early days following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A global revolt against political establishments was now underway, and those who identified with the crumbling order were losing their minds, while grasping for outré conspiracy theories to explain what was happening. How could our gleaming, frictionless, and over-lit landscape be overshadowed, how could there be such darkness at noon? Was the End of History to be eclipsed?
Should there have been any doubt, the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 proved definitive, the End of the End of History was before us. History ended in 1989. In 2008, the economic order was shaken. The political reckoning arrived in 2016. By 2020, the End of History was over.
A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun
The epochal nature of these transformations can only fully be grasped by recalling the affective landscape of the End of History. What did that culture feel like? As alternative political visions faded, culture—especially “alternative culture”—seemed to float freely, unmoored from any determinate social perspective. So, consumerism ruled, with alternative culture’s attacks on it only proving their target’s real dominance. And if attacking it failed, one could just stop caring. The End of History was the age of consumerism, yes, but it was also an age of nihilism.
In the early days of this era, techno music and rave culture bloomed. The world felt open and full of possibility, at least for oneself as an individual. It was almost as if old public duties and strictures were being shaken off. The repetitiveness of dance music seemed to exemplify something of the age: House music and techno had no beginning, middle, and end; it was all about texture and feeling, not narrative structure. These styles appeared to recapitulate the point about the “end of grand narratives,” the defining feature of postmodernity. “Alternative” rock similarly seemed to go nowhere. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was fatally aware of his own “precorporation”—the realization of being a cliché of opposition in the culture of spectacle. The veteran music critic Greil Marcus heard in the band’s music “the feeling of humiliation, disintegration, and defeat by some distant malevolence.” The countercultural stance in the 1990s went by the name “attitude,” but really its function was “to proclaim one’s own limitations loudly and to dismiss the possibility of going beyond them.” Even hip-hop was fast abandoning its impetus for social change in favor of bling, bitches, and guns; Public Enemy gave way to Jay-Z, and then to Kanye West and 6ix9ine. In the United Kingdom, Britpop seemed to make the country cool again and the Union Jack—previously thought to be a symbol of racism and imperialism—could be waved with levity, embraced by popular culture icons (who were soon to be invited to Downing Street anyway).
Meanwhile, mainstream cinema featured outbursts of mindless and mostly depoliticized violence, in response to consumerist ennui (even when they purported to be critiques of such), in films such as Fight Club, Natural Born Killers or Falling Down. The “distant malevolence” that Marcus observed in grunge found reflection in movies that transmitted paranoid themes of total simulacrum or mind control, such as The Matrix, most obviously, as well as The Truman Show and Existenz.
Television, the medium of the 1990s, could still occasionally act as a vehicle for transgression, even while it was being slated as the “idiot box” by what remained of the counterculture. The Simpsons and Beavis & Butthead, both tied to “alt” culture, soon led to Family Guy and South Park, both of which tried to push mainstream offensiveness to the limit, though the link to youth subcultures was increasingly tenuous. Emblematic of television of the early 2000s was Jackass, presaging a world of self-made celebrities and YouTube stars. It was superficially subversive but definitely apolitical, with similarly little connection to youth subculture, other than skateboarding. The masochistic antics of the Jackass crew seemed to be a nihilistic attempt to overcome boredom. And if self-punishment was not your bag, then you could indulge in the humiliation of the other: Big Brother, Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle, I’m a Celebrity, and a range of other “reality” television programs allowed for the elevation of the self through the sadistic denigration of the stranger.
Stylistically, the waves of “retro” and the appropriation and rehashing of the fashion of previous micro-eras began to accelerate. Early 1990s rave culture and its “Second Summer of Love” looked to the late 1960s for inspiration, and it was followed in quick succession by a fascination with the 1970s. The popular catchphrase of the time, “it is the 90s” (meaning “get with it”) strove to demonstrate modernity, in spite of the era’s evident fixation on hipper pasts.
For those with a sense of what politics had been or might be again—or those who merely held hopes that politics might be interesting and angry and rebellious and romantic—the rap metal of Rage Against the Machine and the documentaries of Michael Moore were made to fill the void. But as society as a whole became depoliticized, these “political” artifacts stood out as hyper-political attempts to energize the masses through sheer force of will. They naturally failed. Worse, they were just another identity or—to be truly damning—brand.
The lack of a sense of a future, the eternal present of those decades, meant conceptions of History changed. Mark Fisher acutely named the predominant mood “depressive hedonia.”
It was not so much that people could not experience pleasure; rather, they evinced an inability to do anything other than pursue pleasure. Consumerism and nihilism. Something was missing. Society had retired; we had gone home to sit listlessly on our balconies. We had waved “a final goodbye to wars and ideologies. But,” asked novelist J.G. Ballard in Cocaine Nights, “how do you energize people, give them some sense of community? A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator.”
A sense of community was sought in escapist and hedonistic adventures like rave culture, which pretended to stand for “resistance,” but only in the most temporary sense. Its political correlate was in the global justice movement (also known as anti- or alter-globalization), and later on, Occupy. Protest approximated carnival: It would overturn or destroy hierarchies, but things would return to consumerist normality the next day. Protest and dance both provided little more than a release valve.
The pre-Internet (really, pre-social media) culture of the 1990s and early 2000s represented the last embers of the counterculture, an antagonistic stance toward the mainstream and bourgeois. It was a facet of the so-called “artistic” critique of capitalism that strove for liberation and rejected inauthenticity.
Of course, shards of an oppositional culture could still be found. The music-sharing software Napster, for instance, provided a focal point for debates about ownership, copyright, and access. Looking back, though, these references seem like artifacts of a passed cultural moment and, in an unfortunate irony, a victim of what Simon Reynolds termed “retromania.” Contemporary revivals of earlier popular culture moments rehash the style but without even the limited social content of the 1990s. The “artistic critique” has been fully incorporated by capitalism.
The Wave Pool
What was oppositional politics like, then, during the End of History? Until the September 11th attacks, which shifted attention to war and geopolitics, left-wing activism took on a neo-anarchist bent. Events and movements such as the Carnival Against Capitalism, Reclaim the Streets, and Tute Bianche replaced organization, programs, and leadership with set-piece confrontations with the police. A quasi-revival of situationism featured tactics such as “adbusting,” attempts to critique consumerism by defacing advertisements. Rather than focus on production and distribution, the neo-situationists tilted at capitalist windmills in their narrow focus on the mediatized “spectacle.” The idea that defacing brands provided injury to the capitalist system was premised on the idea that the old, upstanding bourgeois authority was still there and would be offended. But your granddad’s capitalism was long gone. In fact, advertisers were already using the same techniques to sell images back to “alternative” consumers. Long before Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ads regurgitated Black Lives Matter protests, beat writer William S. Burroughs was hawking sportswear in a 1994 Nike spot.
The supposedly more serious alternative politics of the time, inspired by Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) and Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000), sought to unify a bewildering array of different struggles. The phrase “teamsters and turtles” signified the union of workers and environmentalists. But its organizational incoherence was reflected in its schizophrenic political messaging.
The archetypal embodiment of post-historical nihilism—the September 11th attacks—then put an end to this wave of oppositional protest. The anti-war movement that emerged in opposition to the United States-led invasion of Iraq seemed to indicate a new seriousness. Focus shifted from American brands to American foreign policy. And yet, protest only traded the carnivalesque for the moralistic. Despite millions on the street, it never felt like the war might be stopped. Indeed, perma-war continues to this day.
With the waning of anti-war protest, environmentalism took up the slack. Unlike the late 1990s attempt at coalition building, by the mid-2000s the workers were gone from the scene. Without even the pretense of roots in industrial production, environmentalism became fully oriented toward consumption. Instead of political activity in the interests of a collective self, 2000s environmentalism and humanitarianism were entirely other-oriented. What was the picture of the world they painted? Rich, greedy consumers in the Global North and poor, naturalized, and needy producers in the Global South. And that was when advocacy was about people at all. At its worst, environmentalism positioned itself against humans altogether, unifying nihilism, and (negative) consumerism.
The moralization of consumers seemed the only point of leverage for “opposition” to capitalism. While in the 1990s, alternative culture maintained the pretense of being outside and against the market, by the 2000s, the market was the means through which politics was to be pursued. The writing was on the wall when the anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine decided to start selling their own “unbranded” Blackspot Shoes in 2004. Ethical or political consumerism flourished, with Fairtrade purporting to be “in and against” the market. The Make Poverty History campaign in the middle of the decade, with its consumable white bracelets, was the pinnacle of doing politics for people “over there.” Soon after, the growth of social media suggested new technologies could be handmaidens to political consumer campaigns. The heavily moralistic tone and images of distant suffering were gradually eased out in favor of breezy entreaties to “just click”: Look how easy it is to enact positive change. Here was “clicktivism,” when we believed social media would change the world for the better.
But the Global Financial Crisis soon brought politics home. Middle-class advocacy for faraway victims could no longer gain media attention in the age of home foreclosures and austerity. The farce of “Kony 2012” only confirmed the demise of this style of activism. Now, a new discourse on inequality sprung up, seizing on the divide between rich and poor at home. Here, maybe, was the embryo of a new class politics. Politics by and for the masses—rather than by middle-class do-gooders for worthy victims over there—was back.
But then, after Occupy, activist discourse underwent the most farcical revival of all. 1980s-style campus wars made a comeback as fourth-wave feminism. This superficial, white collar radicalism soon expanded into intersectionality. All the energy from the new inequality politics seemed suddenly to be sucked into rancorous online culture wars. The young university students and graduates, who in the mid-2000s were to be found shouting at holidaymakers for unnecessary flying, were reincarnated in the mid-2010s as Twitter avatars telling normies that Halloween costumes were “not ok.”
In short, the successive waves of activism since the end of the Cold War had become ever more individualistic and consumer oriented; they had acquiesced to the market. Wave after wave crashed against the shore, but no transformation occurred. It might as well have been all for fun. None of it was serious about seizing state power.
Wedging Open the Future
But then, in a separate (though not wholly independent) development, a generation was returning to formal politics. The movements of the squares in Spain and Greece birthed new parties in Podemos and Syriza. The same subterranean forces led to the infusion of new, left-wing energy into decrepit parties in the United Kingdom and the United States. Indeed, it was this enthusiasm that led us to start a podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga, which generated many of the ideas in this book. After years of complaining about the absence of politics, things suddenly seemed to be happening. The old delusions of “changing the world without taking power” were being overcome; organizations were being built; everyone was suddenly a socialist. But just because the End of History was ending, it did not mean that something new was clearly presenting itself. Rather, the seeds of the new had still to be sought out.
Unfortunately, the winner of the late 2010s was not to be the Left. Instead, elites still ruled, even if there was a changing of the guard afoot. In tone, “populism” had the upper hand, provoking hysterical reactions from the liberal wing of the establishment. In substance, the ties between liberalism and democracy were straining. The model in the ascendant was China’s—an authoritarian, state-led capitalism. This is a very different world. So, though the End of the End of History is providing a sudden political opening, the Left has thus far proven unable to seize it. Instead, mainstream politics is mutating to meet—however inadequately—the old, unresolved contradictions of the GFC, and the new ones prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. The new age will require a new Left.
What we aim to do here is to explore how the End of History ended—and what that means for politics today. Through analysis of these historical developments, we hope to develop a framework allowing us to tease out what is new and what is coming next. In the table above, we offer a schematic account of political transformations undergone from the Cold War through the End of History to today’s period of the End of the End of History, which encapsulates the argumentative thread running through the book.
Many of the cases and examples we draw from are of the Anglophone world because the global developments we trace express themselves there more clearly. The End of History was originally theorized from a North American and European perspective, and the core of the capitalist world around the North Atlantic remains the trendsetter (until now anyway; the COVID-19 crisis may prove to be China’s “Sputnik moment”). However, we draw on examples from elsewhere in the world whenever possible in order to illustrate how the “End of History” and the “End of the End of History” schema applies globally. For instance, when discussing the politics of anti-corruption, we examine the case of Eastern Europe, since post ideological politics emerged there starkly after the fall of really existing socialism; in one sense, it was where the model of liberal democracy was implanted earliest and with the greatest force at the End of History, and where revolt against it now stares us in the face. (2)
This is not an exhaustive account of global politics today, not least because different nations and regions manifest specific inflections of the general, global tendencies on which we concentrate. For instance, China rises during the End of History, but in ways that run counter to neoliberal prescriptions; Brazil saw the emergence of the last great mass social-democratic party in the late 1980s, ruling through the 2000s; Germany’s hegemonic position in the European Union means it has not seen the popular movements that seized Southern Europe. And, of course, outside of the Western bubble, politics may have seemed much more alive than in our Anglosphere-driven characterizations above. There were protests and riots and coups and a wider variety of regimes. But mainly, it was just capitalism, redder in tooth and claw than in the core, as it has always been.
The crucial point is that extremely few cases pointed toward a radically different form of social organization in the way socialism, radical revolt, and communism did throughout the 20th century. Indeed, the exceptions prove the rule. Witness the Western Left’s fixation on Palestine, Venezuela, or more recently Rojava (combined population today: 40 million). Morose societies in the West led us to search corners of the world for green shoots. But politics always begins at home.
- The exception here may be Greece, where there was significant mass mobilization, which bolstered Syriza in government.
- One might add that Iraq exceeded Eastern Europe in the force by which the implantation of liberal democracy was attempted. And (by coincidence?) Iraq today sees significant mass anti-corruption protests.